“My goal was to make a film for the teenager I was,” says director François Ozon of his new picture Summer of 85, a love story based on Aidan Chambers’ 1982 novel Dance on My Grave
“They are your children. It is your tax dollars. It is your library. You are entitled to know,” reads an ominous warning on the homepage of The Library Patrons of Texas. The function of this now defunct website was clear — it acted as an organising point for conservative parents who were horrified at the morally-degrading material being distributed by local libraries throughout the US. Concerned citizens were given the opportunity to review extracts from the offending books, before being invited to submit angry letters of complaint to local officials demanding that the titles be pulled from shelves. To access an online list of the books in question, visitors had to sign an age-verified declaration which acknowledged that some of the stories they were about to read contained “profanity, explicit sexual content and graphic violence,” and that The Library Patrons of Texas was not liable “for any damages of any kind resulting from viewing or any other use of this material.” What would happen to these books once they’d been removed from shelves was left unspecified. Perhaps they’d be burned? It didn’t matter, the crucial thing was that juveniles and young adults not be allowed to read them.
One book that had the misfortune to make it onto the Patrons’ list was Aidan Chambers’ 1982 novel Dance on My Grave. Ever since its publication, organisations like The Library Patrons of Texas had been lobbying for it to be banned. Chambers’ crime? Writing a non-judgemental queer teen romance. Told through the voice of the 16-year-old Hal, Dance on My Grave celebrates the flush of first love as something completely normal, irrespective of the fact the courtship happens to be between two boys. “That the characters were gay was not an issue,” says three-time Palme d’Or nominee François Ozon, “And in the 80s that was … I won’t say revolutionary, but it was very strong.”
Ozon was 17 when he first read Chambers’ story. He’d heard the book being eagerly discussed, but hadn’t had a chance to get his hands on a copy until he was bought one by an older friend. “It was full of pleasure,” says the director, “It made it seem very simple to be in love with another boy.” An avid follower of film from an early age, most of the stories about gay life that Ozon had come into contact with predicted a bleak future for the young cinephile. Patrice Chéreau’s L'Homme Blessé, Julian Mitchell’s Another Country, William Friedkin’s Cruising, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle – all warned of the harassment, blackmail, assault and death that seemed, inevitably, to await older gay men. “Gay stories at the time were full of guilt,” says Ozon, “It was very dark all the time.”
Almost as soon as he’d finished reading Dance on My Grave, the young Ozon began working on a script. Though he’s no idea where that early draft is now, he remembers the changes he made to Chambers’ novel. “I cut the teacher,” he says, “I cut the social worker. The parents weren’t important. I was focused only on the love story.” It would have made for terrible viewing, he suspects. After his initial frenzy of interest, it would be another 35 years before Ozon sat down to re-read the book he’d loved as a teen. After finishing By the Grace of God – “A very heavy, a very dark movie,” he says – he wanted to explore something lighter, something youthful. “I found this book in my library,” he remembers, “And I thought it’s perfect. It’s exactly what I want. Films happen when they need to happen. It was the right moment at the right place.”
Summer of 85 is remarkably faithful to Chambers’ original novel. A few details have changed here and there – Ozon relocated the story to Normandy, altered a few of the characters’ names, their nationalities – but what remains is a remarkably sensual, sophisticated and indulgent story about two young men falling in love for the first time. Soundtracked with 80s rock gems from Ozon’s teenage years, Summer of 85 revels wistfully in the everyday dramas of adolescence. “You’re experiencing the point of view of Alexi [formerly Hal],” says Ozon, “You live with him, you share his emotions. It’s very naive and innocent. My goal was to make a film for the teenager I was. I wanted to see this kind of movie when I was 17.”
As for what he hopes today’s audiences will take away from the film, “I want people to take pleasure from it,” he says. “The film is an opportunity to think about yourself, to think about your life, about your love, about your purpose … But mostly I just want people to enjoy this story as much as I did when I first discovered it.”
Summer of 85 is released in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema on 23 October 2020.