This latest from François Ozon, director of such wildly diverse offerings as Sitcom, Under the Sand, 8 Women and The New Girlfriend is a bittersweet saga of love and death, a coming-of-age tale based on Aidan Chambers’s 1982 novel Dance on My Grave. Shifting the setting from Southend-on-Sea to Le Tréport in 1985, it centres on Alex (Félix Lefebvre), a death-obsessed teen in the throes of doomed first love, whose morbidly romantic story plays out with the sensual artfulness of classic Ozon, combined with the accessible vigour of an 80s American teen pic.
We first meet David (Benjamin Voisin) at sea, a beautiful vision riding the waves to rescue the hapless Alex after his little boat capsizes. David takes Alex home to his widowed mum, played with nervy energy by Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, who undresses and bathes the new arrival (“All David’s capsized friends go in the tub!”) and tells Alex that “my David needs a real friend”.
Yet with his flick-knife comb and razor-cut smile, David is clearly much more than a friend, taking Alex’s breath away as he weaves through oncoming traffic on his motorbike, chasing an elusive moment of speeding ecstasy that is always just out of reach, like the green light in The Great Gatsby.
All this thrilling young love unfolds in flashback, intercut with later scenes in which an apparently traumatised Alex faces questions about a terrible event for which he is being held accountable. Is Alex somehow responsible for the dreadful fate awaiting David? The only person able to reach Alex is Mr Lefèvre (Melvil Poupaud), the caring but slightly creepy teacher who tells him to try to write about what happened, seemingly prompting the self-questioning memoir narrative.
Ozon first read Chambers’s novel as a teenager and his adaptation blends the prickly joy of that first encounter with the stylistic confidence of a film-maker revisiting an old flame. Gorgeously shot on super-16 by cinematographer Hichame Alaouie, this has the tangible texture of its retro setting, filtered through a nostalgic lens that seems to supersaturate the image, amplifying emotions.
Pop music plays a key role, with the Cure’s In Between Days bookending jukebox selections that trip from the melancholia of Bananarama’s Cruel Summer to the jump-around sounds of Movie Music’s Stars De La Pub. In one key scene, recalling a memorable moment from the 1980 film La boum, Alex finds himself in a nightclub, swaying slowly to the headphone sounds of Rod Stewart’s Sailing while those around him (including David) cavort to more frenetic disco beats. But whereas in La boum, Richard Sanderson’s Reality created a momentary bubble of intimacy for Sophie Marceau and Alexandre Sterling’s characters, here Alex is alone is his reverie, highlighting not only the differing paths that he and David are on, but also the sense that this “friend of my dreams” may be just that – an invention, a projection, reminding us that we do indeed live as we dream, alone.
Well-observed background details add weight to the story, from David’s Jewish heritage and suppressed bereavement about his father to the subtly sympathetic figures of Alex’s parents, who seem to understand more than he imagines. There’s also a strong thread of black comedy, not least in a cross-dressing sequence that somehow manages to intertwine agonising anguish with near-slapstick absurdity – just one example of the tonal balancing act that Ozon so deftly maintains.