Summer of 85 – The intoxicating joy of first love and gut-wrenching pain of loss

8 mins read

Summer of 85 is now showing in Cinemas nationwide and on Curzon Home Cinema

Benjamin Disraeli once said, “The magic of our first love is our ignorance that it can never end”. And anyone looking back on those first intense feelings, wrapped in a shield of invulnerability, could hardly disagree. With youth itself surrounded by an impenetrable bubble of hope, freedom and desire. The effect of our first uncontrollable need for another laced with envy, sex, jealously and joy. But, as any world-weary adult will tell you, those first feelings of love rarely find longevity, as the realities of life burst the bubble of hope. But, what if you never have the time for those realities to dawn; your first love swept away in an instant? And what if that first love is not only your world but also the spark that lights your emerging sexuality?

These themes find a powerful and beautiful voice in François Ozon’s Summer of 85. His film buzzing with the electricity of first love, the confusion of attraction and the explosion of emerging sexuality. While at the same time, exploring the moment the fragility of life bursts the bubble of youthful hope and desire.

Based on the British 1982 novel Dance on My Grave by Aidan Chambers. François Ozon transports the story to Northern France where 16-year-old Alex (Félix Lefebvre) sits in the no-mans-land between school ending and life starting. His own needs and desires wrapped in an unavoidable decision to either remain in school or join his father in the dockyards. The brief respite of a long hot summer, invaded by doubts about his future path. While at the same time, he questions life and mortality in an ocean of hormones and emotion.

However, on a leisurely, solo trip out to sea on his friend’s small boat, Alex capsizes in a freak and sudden storm. His saviour, David (Benjamin Voisin); an enigmatic and charming 18-year-old, who quickly plucks him from the sea. Taking Alex back to his home for fresh clothes and a warm bath, run by his doting mum (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi). With Alex finding himself captivated, intrigued and excited by David’s charisma and energy. His admiration for the boy, quickly leading to a new, and intense friendship, that soon develops into something far more intoxicating. The freedom, joy and fear of his emerging sexuality finding release in the arms of his first true love.

At this point, you may be thinking Summer of 85 is yet another ‘coming of age’ love story. However, from the outset, François Ozon points to something darker. In a film that echoes with the complexity of Christophe Charrier’s, I Am Jonas. With the films opening scenes showing Alex bound in handcuffs, awaiting trial; his first love, laying in a cold and dark grave. With the story that follows reflecting Alex’s memories of an intoxicating, yet devastating summer of love.

These similarities with I Am Jonas, thread through Summer of 85; the first sparks of love surrounded by the embers of unseen tragedy. With the events leading to Alex’s court case only revealed towards the end of the film. The resulting picture delving into the pain of separation, the unbridled joy of first love and uncontrollable anger of adolescent grief. And it’s here where the performance of Félix Lefebvre is nothing short of exceptional. His wide-eyed portrayal of first love, laced with the innocence and expectation of teenage life. While his need for acceptance and belonging as he embraces his sexuality for the first time is portrayed with stunning clarity and depth.

Shot on 16mm film, each moment between Alex and David is framed with the vibrant colours of summer. The secretive nature of their intense affair brought to life through kisses stolen in a moment of adrenaline-fuelled risk, and backroom fumbles when nobody is watching. The secrecy of their physical and emotional connection, reflecting the experience of many gay and lesbian teens as they enter their first relationships. But, the intensity and heat of their love are also rooted in Alex’s memories as our narrator. With the reality of his bond with David held in a haze of rose-tinted wonder. The joy of teenage love sitting in the individual creation of perfection, rather than the reality of experience.

Meanwhile, the darkness at the heart of the film is also held firmly in the emotional prism of adolescence. With the intensity of Alex’s grief and loss bound up in the confusion and turmoil of youth. While at the same time, the secrecy of his relationship with David burns away at his ability to speak freely of his pain. His mother and father perplexed by his silence as the court case draws near. Neither of them knowing that his story will also lead to his ‘coming out’. His only confidant and support, a teacher who encourages him to write his story rather than speak it.

In its sun-drenched reflection of first love, Summer of 85 is bound to draw comparisons to Call Me By Your Name. However, Summer of 85 could not be more different, in both style and delivery; opting for a far more commercial structure and tone. The resulting picture, joyously creating its own unique portrait of 1980s gay teen life. Reflecting a decade where the spectre of AIDS haunted the coming out journey for young men, the very concepts of first love shrouded in a cloak of fear. And maybe it’s here where Summer of 85 truly excels. Its delicate yet powerful commentary on the emotional constraints of 80s gay youth surrounded by a growing need for expression. In a film that shines with impressive performances, earning its place as one of the standout LGBTQ dramas of the year.

Director: François Ozon

Cast:  Félix LefebvreBenjamin VoisinPhilippine Velge, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Melvil Poupaud

You may also like: Call Me By Your Name, Cocoon and I Am Jonas

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