Splashy, sultry ‘Summer of 85’ can’t overcome narrative shortcomings

Illustration of two boys in love
Keira Lee/Staff

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Grade: 2.5/5.0

A young man goes to a small French seaside town, and, while there, he meets another guy. They walk the promenade, stare off of dramatic bluffs and dance around their attraction. Hold on — that’s “My Life With James Dean,” not “Summer of 85,” but you could apply it to either (they even share a few locations, nearly to the shot) and call it a day. 

In both, there’s a woman who inexplicably, innocently bends boundaries. In “My Life With James Dean,” it’s a lesbian with a penchant for sitting on the side of our confused, undressed and sometimes sexually frustrated protagonist’s bed, and in “Summer of 85,” it’s David Gorman’s (Benjamin Voisin) mother, who renders Alexis (Félix Lefebvre), David’s new friend, nude and orders him into the bath. 

Before Alexis ends up in David’s tub (later, the precise details make for a lovers’ quarrel about who seduced who), he’d been sunbathing on a sailboat, floating alone on the sea, only to doze off and wake up to a storm. He capsizes, but David sails to his rescue. The rest of the story is ordinary: About half is spent with the two ogling each other until they finally close the door on us for what Alexis describes as the best night of his life. 

Although it feels like half of this film consists of only golden-hour rays and shots of unbuttoned shirts or tight-fitting jeans, things aren’t all sun and sex. When Alexis’ head clouds, the sunshine disappears: The investigation of David’s death looms over the telling of the six-week fling in which a distraught Alexis is somehow a suspect, as revealed in flash-forwards that detail the police investigation.

For this story to work, for us to truly understand why a gloomy Alexis burns in a barrel the clothes he bought with David, there must be some interiority. We don’t need everything — in fact, “Summer of 85” is playfully coy in its implication of moments we aren’t privy to — but we do need a character. Writer-director François Ozon, who adapted the film from Aidan Chambers’ novel “Dance on My Grave,” only gives us sketches without fully illustrated characterization. We’re asked to jump to the conclusion, for example, that David’s mother is the type of person to jump to conclusions. 

The failed interiority strikes over and over, most definitely because of the narration. Ozon spends so much time having Alexis read off his written account of his relationship with David (which he is writing to satisfy the court) that he neglects the here and now.

The closest and very inadequate replacement for the furtive glances “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” made famous is a shot of a dead David’s nipple, over which Alexis’ narration wants “for his heart to beat.” Under all of its skinny-jeans bonanzas, “Summer of 85” doesn’t have much of substance to say. The romanticism the film evokes — and occasionally the issues it wants to placate — require a nuanced guide, a role that artistic closeups and a relentlessly out-of-tune score can’t fill. 

Ozon’s film is wordy. David lives for fun and Alexis wants a man to hold, but we’re only allowed to see that once the narration takes its long overdue — and frustratingly temporary — bows. Despite the volley of words launched at us, “Summer of 85” can’t muster the dialogue to open these two to us, instead relying on digs at the dynamics of David (evidently giving) and Alexis’ (clearly receiving) sex life to keep afloat. “Summer of 85” is as much a fling as David believes their relationship to be and as wishful about connection as Alexis is pantomimed to be. 

“What interests me is Death,” Alexis says in the film’s opening. Ozon, in a 2000 interview, said his Catholic education gave him “a taste for sin.” His idea of sin is fun for a bit, but the death Alexis fantasizes about can’t come soon enough to rescue “Summer of 85” from Ozon’s storm of blunt fantasy. 

Dominic Marziali covers film. Contact him at [email protected].