We all just want to be shirtless and gay and on a boat off the coast of France with the love of our lives, right? This film gives us plenty of that, with a gorgeous 80s aesthetic to boot. However, permeating this narrative are also moments of grief, sadness, regret, and a deep and impenetrable longing for what could have been. Tragedy and heartbreak live alongside youthful joy and discovery. But what taste does this specific blend leave in your mouth? Don’t worry, we’ll get to that.
Welcome to the 80s
Summer of 85 (François Ozon, 2020), original French title Été 85, tells the story of a summer teen romance. A young and naive Alexis meets the slightly older and more confident David when the latter saves him after his boat capsizes. Their friendship develops into a romantic and sexual relationship, though we soon suspect that David may not be so easily tied down.
All of this happens in a series of extended flashbacks from Alexis’ point of view; we see their time together in a dreamlike, sun-kissed, golden haze. Brightly coloured iconic fashion pieces, roller skaters, and subtly grainy overlays plant us into the film’s universe within the first few shots: it is the 80s, and we’re teenagers on the beach in summer.
Top Tip: Despite what some of the marketing may present, this is not a film about a cute 80s summer romance, so don’t go in expecting that (like I did)
Non-flashback scenes are distinctly more subdued. We learn in Alexis’ opening monologue that David has died, and Alexis is dealing with his feelings of guilt. In these flashforward scenes, a green-grey hue presides over the cinematography, reflecting the tinge of Alexis’ under eyes that are tired both from crying and a from lack of sleep. The bare bones of the plot are revealed immediately; all that is left to be shown are the details.
Thus, these distinctly 80s aesthetics are manipulated to match mood and emotion. Sun-kissed flashbacks and dreary flashforwards explore different sides of 80s fashion and decor: in the former, David wears a hot pink T-shirt with sleeves rolled up to the shoulders; in the latter, Alexis wears a slouchy grey crew-neck jumper.
The eponymous mid-80s feel carries through to attitudes too: the teenagers live with modern European ease, a sense of sexual freedom and lack of prudishness to nudity permeating. David and Alexis never seem to feel ashamed about their attraction to each other, and they don’t shy away from being close in public; though they do get accosted by the occasional slur, we see in crowd scenes that boys are inclined to share physical affection with one another ー perhaps more than you might see today, even.
Biggest Gay Mood: Falling over because you’re looking at your own ass in the mirror
In love with an idea
Alexis and David’s dynamic is typical of a first-time gay relationship. Alexis, less confident and less experienced, is infatuated yet unassertive. He follows David wherever he’s led, staring at him in awe. The first time we see them kiss, Alexis leans forward into David between kisses, his face screwing up in desperation and desire ー Summer of 85 is packed with brilliantly composed visual moments (featured throughout this review), and that is just one example.
David, by contrast, has a swagger and a confidence that Alexis could only ever aspire to. He has the assets typical to a teenage heartthrob ー namely, a suggestive smile, a good physique (hello arms) and a fast motorbike. Let’s not forget that we are introduced to him as Alexis’ rescuer from his capsized boat; this, he is our narrator’s hero, a knight in shining armour (and biceps).
Britney Line Time: “I played with your heart / Got lost in the game”
In hindsight, it seems their relationship was doomed to fail from the start. Indeed, we see early warning signs: jealousy from Alexis when his lover rescues another boy who is blackout drunk on the street, and a complete indifference to these feelings on David’s part. David is spontaneous and unhinged ー quick to escalate the relationship, will he perhaps be quick to move on from it too? Alexis meets an English girl, Kate, who is in France on holiday. She seems to analyse the situation correctly: Alexis is in love with the idea of David. It is a kind of idealised projection that we often see in queer first-love stories ー inevitably, the immediate comparison would be Call Me By Your Name, another modern film set in a mainland European summer of the 1980s.
My main issue with Summer of 85 is its lack of sensitivity. The story tried too hard to sensationalise a relationship dynamic that would have been interesting enough on its own ー almost as if the filmmaker didn’t trust his own narrative. David’s death framing and interrupting the narrative seemed dramatic for the sake of being dramatic.
There is something very interesting to be said about the fleeting nature of David and Alexis’ relationship. The presentation of their story together was concise, whirling past faster than the viewer perhaps would have liked, but surely that was the point. However, flashforwards aside, there were other strange choices within some of the sequencing.
When the two boys spend their first night together, we as an audience are literally shut out, the view of our scene obscured by a door. Alexis tells us, via narration, that he will not share this first (presumably sexual) encounter. We don’t even see their first kiss. The next scene we see, starting with the two of them waking up, is tender and warm, but we are missing context. Denying the viewer access to the night before makes the romance of the morning after feel much less impactful. If this is a film showing us queer coming-of-age narrative through Alexis’ eyes, then I think I’ve found a glaring blind spot.
To finish off, I want to transport you to the final sequence. (The film spoils itself as a narrative device so I won’t worry about revealing these details.) The final shot sees Alexis take to the sea once again on The Calypso, David’s boat. This time, though the sea is still blue and the clouds still white, the scene is distinctly more realistic in its colour palette. Gone are the innocent eyes, overly bright colours and rose-tinted glasses; through heartbreak and grief, it seems that Alexis the boy is all grown up. I think he would have got there without his first boyfriend dying in an over-dramatic plot device (though then he wouldn’t have his boat), but the journey is made all the same.
Summer of 85 is available to watch on Amazon Prime.