‘Summer of 85’: why you need to see the best teen drama of the autumn

Star Félix Lefebvre and director François Ozon discuss this year’s most poignant and nostalgic love story

Summer of 85 is a teen movie of two halves. Set in a sleepy seaside town in Normandy, it follows the intense romance that develops between innocent, death-obsessed Alexis (Félix Lefebvre) and slightly older, more self-assured David (Benjamin Voisin). Revered French director François Ozon (8 femmes, Swimming Pool) deftly captures the giddy thrill of first love but also hints that a gut-wrenching tragedy is coming. The result is an incredibly poignant film exploring how love and loss are often horribly intertwined.

Ozon adapted the film from Aidan Chambers’ groundbreaking 1982 young adult novel Dance on My Grave, relocating the story from Southend-on-Sea to an equivalent resort in northern France. Still, there’s nods to its British origins in Alexis and David’s sympathetic English friend, Kate (Philippine Velge), and a soundtrack flecked with ’80s pop gems by Bananarama and The Cure.

Here are five reasons why it’s a must-see this autumn.

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It offers a refreshing portrait of a same-sex relationship

Though Alexis and David don’t reveal their romantic relationship to their parents, it doesn’t cause them much angst – there’s no dramatic ‘coming out’ scene; they just get on with enjoying each other’s company. “We’re in 2020, but still lots of people are not open-minded about the fact that two guys or two girls can love each other and this is something cool and real,” says Lefebvre. “What’s beautiful about this movie is that it’s really a love story and nothing else. There’s never, like, any problem out of the sexuality of these two boys.”

Lefebvre says he hopes less open-minded viewers will come away from the film understanding that “whether you love another boy or another girl isn’t what’s important – what’s important is the way you love that person”.

It’s a universal love story, too

“The biggest fans of the film in France have been teenage girls,” Ozon says. “It’s not only for the gay audience. What I love about this story is that it could have been about two boys, two girls, a boy and a girl – because ultimately it’s about love.” Lefevbre isn’t surprised either that Summer of 85 is resonating with so many different kinds of people. “We all dream of a love story that’s endless and passionate,” he says. “Even if you’re someone who’s older and had a lot of relationships, I think this movie will remind you of first love and maybe some of the mistakes you made.”

Summer of 85
Director Francois Ozon (centre) with his two stars. Credit: Curzon

It’s rooted in a fascinating and ambiguous true story

Chambers’ young adult novel Dance on My Grave was published in 1982, but he says the idea first came to him 16 years earlier. “I read a very small piece in the newspaper about a boy who had been holed up in front of magistrates for having desecrated a grave,” he recalls. “The report was from the boy’s second appearance in court because at his first appearance, he hadn’t said a thing. So, a social worker was asked to find out what had happened, and at the second hearing she told the magistrates that the boy had made an oath with his friend: if one of them died, the other would dance on his grave.”

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Though the report said nothing about the nature of the boys’ relationship, Chambers was convinced “this wasn’t the full story and something else had happened”. At the time, he was working as a teacher and “heard things about what went on between certain boys which rather suggested what had gone on between the boys in the news report”. Over the years, Chambers tried to dramatise the story on several occasions and finally succeeded in 1982. At the time, depicting a gay relationship in a YA novel was definitely daring – after all, some parts of the UK had only just decriminalised homosexuality.

Chambers admits he was nervous before watching Ozon’s film but is “delighted” with how the director interpreted his work. “The first time you see it, you think it’s a very simple film. But actually, it’s very subtle and you have to see it again to appreciate this fully,” he adds.

Summer of 85
Voisin and Lefebvre play two teens who fall for each other one summer. Credit: Curzon

The soundtrack is a nostalgic treat

The film has a brilliantly wistful score by Air’s Jean-Benoît Dunckel, but also slips in dreamy ’80s bops by Bananarama (‘Cruel Summer’) and Italian pop star Raf (‘Self Control’ – a song later covered by Laura Branigan). Lefevbre says drolly that listening to these period hits helped him to perfect his swaying, ’80s-style dance moves for a nightclub scene.

Music is so integral to the film’s nostalgic vibe that Ozon, who says he’s a “big fan of English new wave music”, even changed its title so he could use The Cure’s ‘In Between Days’. “At first the title of the film was Summer of 84 – because that was the year I turned 16,” he recalls. “But when we asked for the rights to ‘In Between Days’, Robert Smith said it was impossible, and it wasn’t a question of money. It was a question of the film’s title, because ‘In Between Days’ was a hit in 1985.”

Clearly, Smith disliked the fact that the song wasn’t even released in the year the film was going to be set. “And so, because I’m such a big fan of The Cure,” Ozon continues, “I wrote Robert Smith a letter saying I would change the film’s name to Summer of 85 if he let us have the song. And he agreed.”

Summer of 85
‘Summer of 85’ is in cinemas now and on Curzon Home Cinema. Credit: Curzon

It can be interpreted as an allegory for the HIV/AIDS pandemic of the ’80s

Chambers says Dance on My Grave “would have been very different” if he’d written it any later than 1982, because by then the true extent of the HIV/AIDS pandemic would have been apparent. However, Ozon first read the novel a couple of years later, and connected its central tragedy to the untimely deaths of so many young gay men. “It was not the intention of Aidan Chambers, but young adults like me at this time were discovering this link between sexuality and death, and I think that’s why it was so important to us,” he recalls.

Ozon, 52, says he first wrote a script for a film adaptation when he was 18, adding with a laugh: “But I lost that script a long time ago!” He believes he was right to wait another 30 or so years “because I now have the experience and maturity and I’m far enough away from the age of the characters”.

Already a hit in France, Summer of 85 now seems to chime with the times in a way Ozon couldn’t have envisaged. As the world faces another, very different pandemic, the film is a welcome reminder of more innocent times. It also movingly reaffirms the importance of appreciating each moment with the people we love.

‘Summer of 85’ is out now in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema

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