The opening minutes of SUMMER OF 85 tells us exactly what it’s about. Filmmakers tend to play the Bury Your Gays trope for shock value, but François Ozon immediately lets himself off the hook, informing us—via the protagonist—to expect death. If only he’d had the good graces to warn us of the film’s bizarrely regressive characterizations.
The story begins at the end: Following Alexis Robin’s (Félix Lefebvre) arrest, a judge assigns him a case-worker (Aurore Broutin). We’re not made privy to the exact nature of his crime, though we can guess. His prosaic narration suggests a grotesque revelation. In a flashback, Alexis’ literary professor M. Lefèvre (Melvil Poupaud) observes that ancient rites and concepts of the afterlife influenced his student’s writing. There’s nothing revolutionary about a teenaged boy obsessed with morbid subject matter, but in this instance the weight of what we anticipate colors our perception of his innocence.
The voice-over foreshadows David Gorman (Benjamin Voisin) as a “future corpse”; he’s playful and charismatic, his arrival perfectly timed to rescue Alexis from a capsized boat off the Normandy coast. David is free with his affections but emotionally manipulative in equal measure. It’s a trait that’s easy to attribute to his father’s recent death. David goes out of his way to assist a black-out drunk with a face like a Hellinistic statue. Alexis asks him: “Do you do this for every boy who capsizes?”
Despite his misgivings, Alexis falls headfirst into infatuation. They dance around each other until an explosive fight with another boy acts as a catalyst. Author Steve Neale argued that cinema often brutalizes the male body to circumnavigate homoeroticism; a soldier can tenderly cradle a peer, but only if he’s riddled with bullets. Butch Cassidy may wash Sundance’s naked flesh, but only if it’s bloodied. Alexis and David tend to each others’ wounds before finally falling into bed together. After, David pressures his new lover into pact that asks far too much of him given the short length of their acquaintance.
It’s apparent that SUMMER OF 85 draws direct influence from many of New Queer Cinema’s films in the 1990s; unfortunately, none of its attitudes or observations have matured to reflect the decades since this seminal wave of film-making. David’s mother (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), is a caricature of a middle aged woman in crisis. We’re introduced to her character as she pressures Alexis to undress in front of her (an extremely uncomfortable scene that, were their genders reversed, would invite categorization as assault). Later, she irrationally attacks him with misdirected vitriol; there’s little discernible nuance between these extremes.
David himself falls prey to a common and damaging stereotype of male bisexuals, a group already struggling for representation in media. His rebellion following his father’s death can only explain so much of his grey morality; he’s not only promiscuous – vacillating between lovers of different genders – he cruelly throws it in Alexis’ face. The only female character with any pathos is Kate (Philippine Velge). As one of the conquests David used to taunt Alexis, her vilification would’ve been easy. Instead, she’s used as little more than a soundboard for Alexis’ inner turmoil, exposing herself to risk in order to assist him. She advises Alexis: “we invent the people that we love”, intimating that he was enamored of his idea of David. The film barely gives us a surface understanding of Kate.
In the emotional wake of David’s telegraphed demise, we’re left wondering if somber moments (one in a morgue, the other on top of a fresh gravesite) were deliberately – and sometimes hilariously – overwrought in order to break emotional tension. I’ve often argued that queer audiences deserve all forms of representation, from lighthearted rom-coms to action-driven blockbusters. Ozon’s film tries to be that vibrant sensuous summer fling movie in which heterosexuals are accustomed to seeing themselves – unfortunately, it gets muddled by narrative gimmickry, tonal whiplash, and an inability to move past dated character concepts.
This review is from the 45th Toronto International Film Festival. Summer of 85 will be released in the US by Music Box Films at a later date.