Plot: In 1985, a young man falls in love with an adventurous, free-spirited man. Over a brief yet intense period of time, they experience love and heartbreak.
François Ozon’s SUMMER OF 85 is the kind of film you can’t help but wonder what it could have become had it not been for a miscalculated narrative device that almost entirely ruins the experience and turns it from a potentially meaningful story about first love with all its joy and pain into a strangely silly and unconvincing fable.
Call Me By Your Name this is not, it is a film that leaves much to be desired, squarely due to wrong narrative choices that were never needed in the first place. It’s situations like those of SUMMER OF 85 that viewers can’t help but wonder how much faith the filmmaker had in the essence of their story that they had to resort to add-on elements to seemingly spice up what could have been an already engaging story.
Visually pleasing but narratively lacking, SUMMER OF 85 attempts to capture young love: the relationships that sweep off our feet and transport us to dream-like states of ecstasy and joy. Gorgeously filmed, this 1980s period piece centers on Alexis (Félix Lefebvre) who is a working-class teenager and a talented writer. One summer vacation, while out sailing, he capsizes during a storm. Fortunately, he is saved by David (Benjamin Voisin). A friendship-turned-romance quickly develops between the two men. But things do not remain as they are – and their love story soon becomes much more complicated than Alexis had ever imagined or hoped.
The central problem in SUMMER OF 85 is that it does not know what film it wants to be – or perhaps, wants to be two very different films all at the same time. It wants to be a transporting romantic film about how young love, while naive and sometimes immature, stays with us, reminding us of the innocent, unassuming souls we once we were and how the absolute highs and lows of young, at-first-sight love not only shape our personalities and perceptions but also sometimes lead us to project our aspirations and desires on partners who were never truly the perfect soulmates we thought they were. In that department, the film does well – thanks to Lefebvre’s brave, vulnerable and believable performance and the excellent chemistry he shared with Voison.
The other film SUMMER OF 85 wants to be, and this is where the film gets derailed, is some sort of romantic thriller with elements of suspense and intrigue. The framing device, which sets Alexis at the center of a mysterious death where he is seen as a culprit, completely imbalances the film’s narrative structure, creating a collision of styles that does not yield a coherent or impactful film. Quite on the contrary, it creates a strangely alienating experience that may well leave audiences cold and indifferent.
Verdict: SUMMER OF 85 needed a singular, more coherent directorial and narrative vision to deliver a more focused, authentic and affecting tale of first love. Instead, we are left with a collision of styles and a film that fails more than it succeeds.
This review is from the 45th Toronto International Film Festival. Music Box Films will release Summer of 85 in the US.