Parting Glances: I watch “Summer of ’85”

Parting Glances: I watch “Summer of ’85” December 8, 2020

Okay, I will first say that I developed a Theory about this movie, a theory which captivated me and which may be entirely projection. I’ve seen no other movies by Francois Ozon (and in fact confused him with Xavier Dolan until ten seconds ago). I came to this thing knowing only that it was a gay ’80s possibly thriller, aka two and possibly three things I definitely want. As it closed I thought I had watched a farewell to a certain way of being gay: a movie set in the ’80s but closing a door firmly against certain cultural forms I associate more with the ’90s, e.g. the New Queer Cinema. Once you’ve whistled past the graveyard, why not just keep whistling? This whole approach to the film may be too theoretical–the kind of thing you come up with if you review movies, not if you make them. But let me make my case. SPOILERS eventually.

Summer of ’85 begins with teenage Alex (Felix Lefebvre) telling us that once, not too long ago, his “hobby was Death,” “Death with a capital D.” He promises us in voiceover that there will be a corpse in this movie: “a corpse I knew when it was alive.” That corpse is David Gorman (Benjamin Voisin, with some Richard E. Grant appeal), an Older Boy. Their meet-cute is humiliating for Alex–of course it is, this movie is perfectly the thing it is–as he’s first ditched by the boy he has an obvious crush on and then dumped pantsless out of a capsized boat, to be rescued in his underwear by the dashing soon-to-be-corpse. Further provocative, confusing humiliations follow at the hands of David’s mother (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) but he and David do at last make it happen, in the kind of sex scene Americans euphemistically call “European.” A love triangle develops with the English girl Kate (an endearing Philippine Velge, gloriously-costumed and never demonized by the script) and Alex’s jealousy threatens violence, disaster, all the queer futures you could want.

All of this is filmed in, like, John Hughes-o-Vision. It looks like a film of the period–and not like a gay film. It’s gloriously teenage. Its morbidity is teenage. Its sexuality (I typed “sensuality” and then laughed at myself, don’t be ridiculous) is teenage. The stakes feel so impossibly high, and yet somehow also miniature: a microcosm? a madeleine?

Then disaster strikes and it’s not at all what you might expect, and the film still has a fair chunk of its brisk runtime to go. (An hour and a half on the nail, you should pardon the expression.) The film swerves: Kate comes to the forefront. Alex is accused of an anti-Semitic hate crime. There’s a terrific, again wildly somehow period and anti-period scene in which Alex embraces David’s corpse while wearing makeup and a dress. (A turquoise dress with a lipstick-print pattern… this movie is perfect.) And then it resolves.

Alex is all right. He’s cleared; he seems freed. He sees a man on the beach: someone we’ve seen before, who has gone through his own harrowing night journey and now rests in the sun. They take the boat out. They’re together, laughing, a door opening on an unshadowed day.

It’s still 1985, you know. The forces that meant no queer movies of that time really play out like a John Hughes movie are still out there all around them. The difference between Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice and a gay kid in 1985 staying up late to watch Suddenly, Last Summer is that one of them can take her costume off. I think a lot about the title David Wojnarowicz chose for his autobiography, published the year before he died of AIDS, Close to the Knives. There’s a strange feeling in Summer of ’85, like, what if all the knives dissolved? What if they could be just a “hobby,” just an adolescent fixation and not the fascinating things you’ll get instead of a future? What if romance was normal, not mortal?

It would be such a relief! It is a relief to watch Alex shed morbidity and put on confidence.

It’s also a loss. Alex and his new friend sail out into their normal sunshine, their private comfort. They aren’t angry or self-lacerating; they’re laughing but, unlike the old furious ’90s movies, they’re not funny. There’s a promise in these last frames–I think! I project!!–of satisfaction. From adolescent melodrama to adult bourgeois optimism; once a moth to a flame, now a cat to a radiator. Is there some third thing??

Of course there is. And it’s a mistake to think you can only find the third thing, some life at once gentle and sublime, through melodrama and tragedy. Some people find it only when they’ve left those tortured demon-lover days behind and learned that their longings can bring them happiness without making them merely sated. In a weird way Summer of ’85 is like a Dunstan Thompson biopic that stops right when he meets Philip Trower. That’s the sweetness of the film and also its disappointment.

Skeletons chillin’ via Pikist under a Creative Commons license.

Browse Our Archives