The challenge of François Ozon’s Summer of 85 is stated outright when heartbroken teenager Alexis (Félix Lefebvre) is told, “The only thing that matters is to somehow escape your history.” Those words are the key to Ozon’s latest sexual and moral provocation. Looking back to the era of the AIDS crisis, Ozon tests its recent political distortion (the history that is used to further activist discontent) by simultaneously reminding us of the thrill of romance, sexual pursuit, and death.
Ozon’s ebullient imagery in Summer of 85 is the opposite of morbid. It immediately contrasts the preoccupation with death that brainy 16-year-old Alexis specifies as “Death with a capital D.” His voice-over narrates a court-ordered writing assignment, explaining how he met the now-deceased 18-year-old David (Benjamin Voisin), and Ozon uses the same imaginative daring to visualize flashbacks of their adventure.
The queerness of Alexis and David’s love story is seen in how Ozon re-creates 1985 — reviving the urgent synth-pulse of the period’s pop music (primarily The Cure’s “Inbetween Days”) to portray the reckless vivacity of adolescence. The boys meet when David saves Alexis after his skiff capsizes during a riptide; their friendship and gradual intimacy develop out of their opposing backgrounds. Alexis is initiated into sex while David is introduced to affection. The clash of innocence and experience is not simple nostalgia as in Summer of ’42. Ozon, in his own peculiar way, avoids sentimental education to tell a story that is also an abstract portrayal of the longing and grief that defines the AIDS tragedy.
It is through irony — bright exteriors, blue sky, and ecstatic sunbathing (shot by Hichame Alaouie) — that Ozon is able to confront AIDS without ever naming it, while depicting the impending crisis in a radiant world of nearly tactile sensuality. His aesthetic conceit offers a moral proposition: Will the legacy of AIDS be political or personal?
At first this seems outrageous, an indifferent point of view afforded to Millennials generations later. But that challenge gives Summer of 85 suspense; it’s what makes 53-year-old Ozon heir to Luis Buñuel’s surrealist daring. Ozon (who was 18 in 1985) is unabashed about critiquing human folly because, ultimately, his films are compassionate and forthright.
Alexis struggles with the personal aspect of David’s license and promiscuity — the essential question of homosexual fidelity that’s been swept away by political correctness. The 2017 hit Call Me by Your Name was offensively superficial about the kind of emotional and family complication that Alexis and David meet head-on. When David says, “I won’t be owned by anyone,” Alexis responds by breaking the mirror that shows their bad reflection.
Ozon goes back to 1985 — the year of Back to the Future — as a cineaste’s jest (Lefebvre resembles Ozon crossed with Michael J. Fox) to reclaim the profundity that other current gay filmmakers lack. Summer of 85 references cinema’s finest moments of romantic expression: The amusement-park flirtation in Lionel Baier’s Garçon Stupide; the quiet bedroom tryst from Julián Hernández’s Broken Sky; the movie-balcony scene from Terence Davies’s The Long Day Closes; and, best of all, the classic motorcycle ride in André Téchiné’s Wild Reeds (“Lean into the motion,” David advises). These mementos give Summer of 85 moral substance, as does the poem “Il faut, voyez-vous, nous pardonner les choses” (It is necessary, you see, to forgive things) that Paul Verlaine wrote for Arthur Rimbaud, which Alexis reads to David.
Between Summer of 85’s cultural references, love story, gender satire, private confessional, and an incomplete subplot (featuring Melvil Poupaud as a bookish professor also smitten by sex-bomb David), Ozon switches several tenses too many. Yet, Ozon’s historical-political concept needs authentic pop-culture connections — more Erasure, New Order, The Associates, Scritti Politti rather than the blandly sentimental Rod Stewart track “Sailing,” which Alexis listens to in a moment of sublime earphone isolation at a disco. France’s Olivier Assayas might have better musical taste, but Ozon’s previous meditations — By the Grace of God, Young and Beautiful, Ricky, and Frantz — are the work of a more fascinating and culturally relevant filmmaker. Summer of 85 is among Ozon’s most impressive movies. Tony Kushner’s overwrought Angels in America gratuitously politicized the AIDS crisis and is considered definitive, but Summer of 85, double-billed with Robin Campillo’s epic BPM, would provide the perfect correction and counterpoint.