TIFF 2020: “Summer of 85” tells a wistful tale of young gay love

TIFF Summer of 85

François Ozon adds another touching romance to France’s queer cinema canon.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.)

Upon first glance at François Ozon’s latest film, Summer of 85, it’s virtually impossible to avoid comparisons to the beloved Oscar-winning Call Me By Your Name. Though Ozon draws his inspiration from a 1982 novel (Dance on My Grave by Aidan Chambers) that predates Guadagnino’s summer romance, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a sneaky attempt at a remake. Indeed, the basic premise follows a teenage boy who falls madly in love with a tall handsome stranger, during a fateful European summer in the 1980s. But while the two films feel like cinematic cousins, there are darker edges to Ozon’s wistful tale of young gay love.

Summer of 85 is told from the perspective of Alexis (Félix Lefebvre), a 16-year old boy living in a seaside town in Normandy, France. Free from school and other obligations, he has high hopes for the summer, seeking out new friends to pass the time. One day during a solo sailing trip, he receives his wish under unlikely circumstances. Due to stormy conditions, his boat capsizes. But out of nowhere comes a hero in the form of an 18-year old named David (Benjamin Voisin). 

Feeling grateful towards his metaphorical knight in shining armor, Alexis attempts to forge a friendship with David. Luckily, David is also in need of a friend and even convinces Alexis to work part time in his family’s shop. And as the pair become better acquainted, their friendship gradually grows into something more. 

TIFF Summer of 85
Summer of 85 (TIFF 2020)

Told primarily in flashbacks, Alexis and David’s summer romance is gorgeously wrought with a nostalgic spirit. Every element of Summer’s craft feels tailor-made to make you swoon, and each scene is more touching than the next.

Even before our lovers meet, the gorgeous backdrop sets the perfect atmosphere. With its breathtaking coastal sunsets and lush countryside greenery, the Normandy setting is idyllic. And it’s made even more stunning by the warm, grainy texture of Hichame Alaouié’s 16mm cinematography. Meanwhile, the pop-infused soundtrack gives off an infectious, youthful energy. The use of Rod Stewart’s “Sailing” is particularly effective during a montage that includes a neon-lit club scene and a fireside congregation.

Then there is the portrayal of the characters, made endearing thanks to the sincerity of the performances and the sensitivity of the writing. In the role of the smitten protagonist, the fresh-faced Lefebvre radiates an innate vulnerability and innocence. As a result, there’s a genuine sweetness to his tentative courtship with David.

Every element of Summer’s craft feels tailor-made to make you swoon, and each scene is more touching than the next.

Ozon also gets great mileage out of Alexis’ writerly aspirations, channeling his literary mind with voice-over narration that examines his confusion about the mysteries of love. And while we aren’t directly privy to David’s thoughts, his complicated perspective is also explored. The revelation that he is mourning his father’s death makes him deeply sympathetic.

For the most part, Summer of 85 is utterly romantic. But through David’s loss, the near-fatal incident that brings the boys together, and various other plot elements, death constantly hangs over the narrative. Most explicitly, Alexis breaks the fourth wall to warn viewers that if death doesn’t interest you, then this isn’t the story for you.

TIFF Summer of 85
Summer of 85 (TIFF 2020)

The significance of that statement is eventually revealed as the past and present timelines converge. In the process, the narrative’s detour into melodrama threatens to derail the film. But  Lefebvre keeps the story on track with the precious honesty of his performance. Through his coming of age and its associated identity crisis, he relatably conveys the physical, mental and emotional toll of naive young love. 

More jaded viewers may balk at Alexis’ premature devotion to someone he believes to be “The One.” But the hopeless romantics will see pieces of themselves in him. Regardless of which side you fall on, there’s much to love in the cinematic beauty of Summer of 85.  

Summer of 85 Trailer:

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Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, Awards Radar and ThatShelf.com. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered Sundance, TIFF and NYFF among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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