Love, Sex, and Death... François Ozon on 'Summer of 85'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday June 22, 2021

Félix Lefebvre and Benjamin Voisin
Félix Lefebvre and Benjamin Voisin  (Source:IMDb)

Since his 2003 international breakout hit "Swimming Pool," prolific out French filmmaker François Ozon has worked in any number of genres and embraced a fluid cinematic sexuality that's sometimes subtle, but just as often as not (literally) in your face. From satirically soapy fare like "In the House" and the psycho-sexual "Frantz" to the domestic farce of "Potiche" and the dark thriller vibe of "Double Lover," Ozon is equally at home in any filmic category.

His latest film, "Summer of 85," is a sunlit coming-of-age romance bookended by a criminal procedural. Set on the seaside in Normandy, the film is narrated by 16-year-old Alex (Félix Lefebvre), who has reached the point at which he must decide whether to leave school and go to work — an option his father encourages — or continue his education with an eye to becoming a writer, which one of his teachers, seeing Alex's talent, urges.

François Ozon (center) with Félix Lefebvre and Benjamin Voisin  

Alex has an odd fascination with death, giving his dilemma an existential feel. But anxieties about his future are displaced by the glories of the present moment when he meets the slightly older — but much more worldly — David (Benjamin Voisin). The two are instantly smitten with one another, and it's not long before they embark on a six-week relationship that's filled with far more than the usual amount of drama and passion than first love typically entails.

Complicating the picture are two women: David's mother, Mdme. Gorman (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), who clings tightly to David and immediately draws Alex — with a slightly cougarish energy — into that embrace. There's also a British au pair named Kate (Philippine Velge) who's in town for the summer — and who catches David's eye, sparking a jealous reaction in Alex that leads to tragedy.

Love, sex, death... with the cinematic pot boiling over, Ozon still manages to shape his narrative and guide viewers through whip-quick changes of mood. The director chatted with EDGE about his longtime ambition to make the film, and revealed what went into finding the right actors for the film's lead roles.

Benjamin Voisin, Philippine Velge and Félix Lefebvre  

EDGE: The themes of love and death are frequently paired in literature, and especially in love stories. How did making the love element into a gay romance affect that combination of themes?

François Ozon: I think what I enjoy in this film is it's not a gay story. It's a universal love story. And I realized, when the film was released in France, the success of the film came not especially from the gay audience, but from young girls, straight people, because everybody can connect with these characters - as a teenager, you can have had these kind of feelings.

EDGE: What drew you to make a film from Aidan Chambers' young adult novel "Dance on My Grave?"

François Ozon: I read the book when I was 17 years old, and I really loved it. I would have loved to see this play on a big screen as a teenager, because at that time all the representations of gay love stories were always very dark, full of guilt, depressive. And in this story it was so normal, so simple and beautiful and romantic. I was dreaming to become a director when I was young, and I thought to myself, "If one day I become a director, it could be my first feature." And, actually, I had to wait 35 years to start to make this film.

EDGE: The source material being a young adult novel, did you feel you had to revise it substantially or make it more mature for the film?

François Ozon: The book is in English and the story happens in England, so I had to change everything to France. And I think my adaptation is a mix between my own adolescence and the book, and my memories of my teenage time. So, it's a mix of all these different elements, but I'm quite faithful to the book.

EDGE: So you didn't think, "It's too juvenile, I have to make it more adult."

François Ozon: No, I think the book is very simple, very strong. It's really from the point of view of a teenager. I tried to make the film for who I was [as a teenager] — the voice over, all these things which are very... not immature, but very naïve, and very simple.

Félix Lefebvre and Benjamin Voisin  

EDGE: You have made films in a variety of genres — comedy, drama, thriller... "Summer of 85" is some of all of those things. How did you find the balance you wanted between those various elements?

François Ozon: It's a very American question, the question of genre and how to balance the genre. I'm very surprised each time an American journalist asks me, "How do you balance the tone of the film?" For me, as a French [man], it's quite natural. One day in your life you have the feeling [you are] in a Batman movie, and the day after you are in a Spielberg movie. And after that you are, I don't know, in French Nouvelle Vague movie. I think life is made of different tones, so it's quite natural to change, not to be always in the same tone. I like to play with different tones.... it's quite natural to mix these different things.

EDGE: You're right Americans can be obsessed with genre, but that's why I ask — the film flows and balances everything so perfectly, and even the most extreme pairings of theme or emotions work quite well. One of the film's pivotal, and most memorable, moments involves a morgue, a corpse, and Alex disguising himself as a girl, which leads to disaster. It's funny and horrifying all at the same time.

François Ozon: Actually, it was difficult in the editing room to balance the scene, because it could [have been too comedic]. Somehow, we had to find the right tone for the scene, but it was quite complex. My producer asked me to cut the scene. He said, "People will be disgusted to see that." But for me it was important, because it's the friendship between the boy and the girl, and she's trying to help him. And I think as a teenager, very often you live strange experiences.

Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Félix Lefebvre  

EDGE: When it came to casting Félix Lefebvre as Alex and Benjamin Voisin as David, what were you looking for in the actors?

François Ozon: Innocence; the fact they were very young, and discovering many things. I started to cast before writing the script. I wanted to be sure to have the right actors for these parts because they have the whole film on their shoulders. And if I wouldn't have found these actors, I would have stopped the production. So, during six months, we made a lot of readings. We also spent a lot of time together, and we became friends.

EDGE: Did you start by casting one actor and then look to find the right match for him? Or did you find both of your leads at the same time?

François Ozon: It was important to have Alex first, so I decided to cast Félix, and after we cast him we met different boys to see if the chemistry between the two could work. It was funny, because Benjamin read for the part of Alex, but I realized he was too mature for the part, so I decided to change and to match him with Félix. It was a perfect chemistry between the two.

EDGE: One of the first things we learn about David is that he is unreliable. Given that Alex is the narrator — he's writing the story down after the fact — are we to think that Alex, too, may be an unreliable narrator? Did you play with that idea?

François Ozon: I think, of course when you write a story you change many elements; between reality and legend, there is sometimes a gap. I wanted to show that Alex was blind [when it came to] David. I think the audience can see who David really is; he's not reliable, as you say. But Alex doesn't want to see that. There are many small signs, but when you are in love we often decide to stay blind. You don't want to see everything; love is a kind of illusion, and when you realize that the person you love is not exactly the charming prince or the charming princess, it's a kind of desolation. That's what Alex is living [after certain things take place]. It's such a big shock for Alex; it's a reality he is discovering at this moment.

Félix Lefebvre  

EDGE: Another complex relationship is that of Alex and David's mother, Mdme. Gorman (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi). She's inappropriate, but she's also very maternal; she's loving toward Alex, but also she becomes very cruel. What were you looking for when writing, and then casting, this character?

François Ozon: I think she is many things. [Her husband] died one year before, so you can imagine that this woman is very neurotic and very disturbed. And David is, too; they are in mourning. Alex arrives like an angel that can change the world of these people. I like that at first this woman is very nice, very open minded, and after [a time] she's like a witch. You have the feeling she's protecting her son, but at the same time she's... what is the word? Castration? Do you say castration? I had in mind the mother from "Suddenly Last Summer," by Tennessee Williams — [Mrs. Venable, played by] Katharine Hepburn. I said to Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, "Watch this movie, and there is the character of the mother." She seems perfect and very nice, but actually she's a monster!

EDGE: Between the film's setting and the story and the 1980s music, "Summer of 85" will inevitably be compared with "Call Me by Your Name." Is that something you thought about, or that you embrace... or you don't care?

François Ozon: I love that film, too. I think they are very different visions. My film is more, as you said before, about love and death. In "Call Me by Your Name," it's more difficult between the two, In reference to the '80s, it's part of history. As we know, in the '80s AIDS arrived and destroyed the lives of so many gay people, and straight people, too. It's a way to go back to this time before; it can seem like a paradise. It was important to put the story before [the global AIDS crisis]. And, also, I read the story in '85.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.