Summer of 85’s opening scene: “murder!!!”
Five minutes later: we learn the main character-cum-murderer has a mondo penis.
Ozon gonna Ozon (and Strauss gonna Strauss with that “cum” inclusion”).
In actuality, Summer of 85 turns out to be pruder than François’ norm, and I’d argue he utilizes and inverts these auteurist expectations — reinforced by the introductory red herring of a voiceover — to compel the audience to engage with the tamer story as if it’s a more Ozonian tale, a thematically rife and ripe decision.
First off: does the lead’s initial admission that he murdered his lover count as a red herring?
I’ve always understood a red herring to be a seemingly important characteristic of a work of art that ultimately proves inconsequential to what the piece ends up really being about.
If we agree upon this reductive definition, then Summer of 85 almost pulls a reverse red herring on the audience; it starts by telling us we’re about to watch the story of a murder told by the murderer, only for there to be no murder at all, but rather a mere accidental death. And yet, this murderous red herring can help key us into some of what’s on the movie’s mind.
Telling the audience from the jump that we’re watching the build-up to a murder radically transforms how we process the events unfolding before us. Instead of sitting back and taking it in as a typical summer lovin’ coming (and cuming) of ager, our senses should be heightened throughout by the prospect of bloodshed, trying to locate the early signs and motivations leading to the tragedy. When dealing with a murder case, audiences become detectives, keeping a look out for any indicators and explanations of what’s to come (only one type of come this time), inspecting the proceedings with a keener eye than we’d ever lay on a straightforward romance.
In this way, we’re put in a similar headspace to the main character. Our viewing experience becomes reflective of his plight; for amorists struggling through, the ups-and-downs of a first love can feel like they bear the life-and-death stakes of a murder, with the paranoia and anxiety to match.
In addition, this bait-and-switch emphasizes we’re in the presence of a memory play. Like most first-person accounts, we’re not necessarily watching what actually happened exactly as it went down; rather, we’re watching his recollections, as evidenced by the later reveal that the voiceover comes from the text of the book he’s writing about this murky incident.
In hindsight, it makes sense that he labels himself the murderer; the throes of grief distort reality, and he wouldn’t be the first “widow(er)” to so blame themselves for contributing to a breakup-fueled death that they go as far as calling themselves the murderers, as opposed to chalking up the outcome to many other incidental factors that more directly contributed to the demise.
And “hindsight” is one of the movie’s primary themes; the last line is about how we reorient our view on our history in a manner that helps us move on with our lives. His journey from “I’m the murderer” to “what are some more nuanced, helpful lessons to learn from this saga” is basically his character arc. The act of recounting this story in writing — which is a form of artistic creation, even with non-fiction — allows him to see the whole shebang with more measured eyes, distanced from judgement-clouding emotions, so that he can rightfully let himself off the hook.
How we categorize a story — a murder! — informs our relationship to that story. We watch the movie differently when we think it’s a murder set-up, altering our takeaways; our judgement of the story is clouded by his own self-judgement. When we realize what it is, we can look back on the sequencing differently, and more accurately. Same for him.
A new conception of the past shaping our present and future — that’s art, baby.