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VIFF 2020 Review: Summer of 85 (Été 85)

Summer of 85 is the summer of love for two young men, played by Felix Lefebvre (left) and Benjamin Voisin (right).

Summer of 85 is a film that will first attract people to watch for differing reasons. Some who are fans of French films, some for the LGBT-themes story, some who are fans of retro-80’s stuff, or some who are fans of teen love stories. Those who see it should be pleased.

The film begins with a young male, only 16. His name is Alexis and he’s under arrest by authorities. He’s frustrated over what he did. The authorities are wondering why he did what he did. Recklessness? Anti-semitism?

Alexis is willing to let us know how it all started. It all started one hot summer day along the Normand coast. One day he decides to go boating. However it’s on the day of a thunderstorm and Alexis is not all that good at sailing to begin with. His boat capsizes and it throws Alexis in the water. Alexis is almost drowning in the water until he’s rescued by a young male his age. His name is David Gorman. He is 18 years-old, Jewish, and works with his mother’s tourism business along the coast. Alexis is awestruck by David. David takes Alexis to his house where his mother offers him a bath to warm up.

Alexis and David are too completely different individuals. Alexis is the shy one just trying to find his way in the world. David is the daredevil rebel who isn’t afraid to drive like a crazy on his motorcycle and believes in living life unpredictably. Over time, Alexis and David are a lot more than simple friends. They do many a thing together like go to parties, go to carnivals, go to amusement parks and go to the beach. David’s mother even takes a liking to Alexis. Alexis’ mother notices that he’s become less shy since he met David. One night, the two rescue a drunken man who almost drowns in the beach. Another time after a fun night, the two make a promise to each other. If one dies before the other, they dance on their grave.

One day, a woman enters the picture. Her name is Kate and she’s a young student from the UK who speaks excellent French. David is welcoming to having Kate with the two of them, as a friend, but Alexis is uncomfortable with it. The two take Kate out sailing. Even though Alexis goes along with it, you can tell as David keeps Kate company, Alexis is sensing something. Eventually Alexis is justified. At a party, Alexis catches David making love to Kate. Alexis confronts David in his mother’s store. David acts like he couldn’t care less about Alexis’ feelings and just throws in his face how boring he is. Alexis starts a fight with him and trashes the store before leaving. David goes out to look for him and even gets violent at a party with others.

The next day, Alexis goes to visit the store, but David’s mother is infuriated with him. David died in a motorcycle accident trying to search for Alexis and she completely blames him for his death. She even threatens to call the police when Alexis comes to the house. Alexis is heartbroken and distraught. His mother doesn’t know how to deal with him. The only person he feels he can see about this is Kate. Kate says he’s over at the morgue. The only way Alexis can see David’s body is if he poses as his girlfriend. Alexis agrees to do so. As he sees the deceased David, Alexis can’t help but make love to him one last time, which gets them both booted out of the morgue. Kate is upset with how Alexis has been acting and has a falling out with him. Alexis feels he has one last mission. He goes to the town cemetery. He goes to the Jewish section to search for the newest grave. He finds David’s grave. He dances on top of it with Rod Stewart’s ‘Sailing’ playing from his Walkman. That’s when the police arrest him.

Alexis’ mother tries to reach out to him before his trial. Kate meets with Alexis one last time before she returns to the UK. She just lets Alexis know both of them weren’t in love with David. They were in love with their own image of David. At the trial, Alexis is given a lenient sentence. The Summer of 1985 appears on the verge of ending as Alexis notices a man at the beach. He’s the drunkard whom he and David saved from drowning. Alexis learns that he’s gay. The two get to know each other better.

I’m sure that when you first start to watch this film, many of you will impulsively thin kat the beginning you will get another case of Call Me By Your Name. I mean it has all the makings: Mediterranean Coast, a boy-meets-boy story, adaptation from a novel. However there are a lot of differences you’ll notice as time goes on. First of all this boy-meets-boy story is of a 16 year-old and an 18 year-old. One’s the more orderly, more sensitive type. One’s the rebel who likes to let loose. The inclusion of the young woman in the middle also adds for some twists and turns. Also like, CMBYN, this film is an adaptation of a book. The book is actually a 1982 British book by Aidan Chambers titled Dance On My Grave.

The film is as much of a tragedy as it is a comedy. David breaks up with Alexis in the most heartless way. David then dies young. Alexis doesn’t know how to deal with David, especially with seducing his corpse (and disguised as a female). He does the dance he promised, which is what leads him to be arrested in the first place. There are moments of heartbreak, but there are moments that will have you laughing. I’m sure you won’t have a hard time finding the humor in there.

At the same time, the story is a funny reminder to many of us of our young-and-stupid days. About days when we become adults for the first time and just let it all out in having fun as limitless as it gets. The film is also a reminder of our own immaturities as young adults. It’s noticeable in Alexis as he doesn’t know how to deal with his emotions. It’s evident in David how he drops Alexis cold because he sees him as a bore. Yeah, cases when we were that insensitive to those that ‘loved’ us are an uncomfortable reminder of our own immaturities we had when we were becoming adults. However the biggest surprise for me is that it’s set in 1985 and the public treat the gay couple like it’s no big deal. I remember 1985 very well. People were not that accepting of gay couples back then. Plus with the AIDS epidemic getting a lot of attention, the gay lifestyle was seen with a lot of contempt. Anyways, if the story included the realities of the time, it wouldn’t have made for the delight it is.

This is an excellent film from French director Francois Ozon. Ozon has had over twenty years of an illustrious filmmaking career including 8 Women, Swimming Pool, Potiche, Frantz and By The Grace Of God that won the Silver Bear at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival. This film doesn’t have the same awards-caliber as some of his past films, but it’s still a remarkable film as it shows a side of teen love most films don’t show. Some could even say this film looks a lot like a queer version of a John Hughes teen comedy. Also remarkable are the acting performances of the main protagonist Felix Lefebvre and his love interest Benjamin Voisin. Felix was excellent in depicting Alexis as the sensitive one who falls in love for the first time. Felix was great in depicting Alexis with his sensitivities, insecurities and immaturities. Voisin was excellent in playing the rebel whose bad-boy sex-appeal knows how to win Alexis and Kate, but is too selfish and stupid to relate to others. Philippine Velge was also excellent as Kate: the British girl in between the two. Valeria Bruni Tedeschi was also very good as David’s mother and did an excellent job in going from a loving mother to one grieving and hurting badly. Isabelle Nanty is also good as Alexis’ caring and concerned mother.

Summer of 85 hasn’t been a big darling at too many film festivals. Comedies like these normally aren’t. It hasn’t even won awards for LGBT-themed films. However it has been a nominee for the Gold Q-Hugo Award at the Chicago Film Festival and was nominated for two awards at the San Sebastian Film Festival. I’m sure when the awards season comes up later than usual in 2021, it will win or be nominated for many LGBT-themed awards.

That’s the unique thing about Summer of 85. It’s part-tragedy, part-comedy. Part teen romance, part coming-of-age story. Those who see it will be delighted.

Oscars 2013 Best Picture Review: Philomena

Judi Dench plays Philomena Lee, an Irish woman looking for he long lost son, in Philomena.

Judi Dench plays Philomena Lee, an Irish woman looking for her long lost son, in Philomena.

The premise of Philomena may make many people nervous about seeing it. The questions before watching it will be “Will it be too disturbing?” or “Will the Catholic Church get knocked on screen again?” There’s only one way to find out.

The film begins in 1951 with a teenage Philomena Lee. She meets a young boy at a town fair whom she completely falls for that one day. Fast forward to 2004. Martin Sixsmith is an unemployed journalist since the Labour Party, the party he works as a government advisor, is beset by scandal. He goes to a party and meets the daughter of Philomena Lee who encourages him to write a story about her mother who was forced to give up her baby boy Anthony more than 50 years ago. Martin is uninterested in writing a human interest story and is more intent on writing a book on Russian history. However it’s after he meets Philomena and hears her story about how it all happened that he changes his mind and investigates further.

Once she was pregnant, she was sent by her father to Sean Ross Abbey, a mother-and-baby home that young unwed pregnant girls were sent to. It was terrible to live there while under the orders of the strict Sister Hildegarde, especially if she was assigned to do the laundries for four year to cover her stay. Nevertheless she was able to see her baby Anthony whom grew attached to her friend’s girl Mary. Then one day Philomena saw Mary and Anthony adopted out of the house. All Philomena could do was watch in heartbreak 30 feet away as her infant son was taken away.

Philomena had tried for years to find out what happened to her son by visiting the convent to no avail. Martin goes with Philomena to the convent only to hear from the nuns the records were lost in a fire years earlier. It’s over at the pub they hear from locals that the records were purposely destroyed in a fire and the children were sold to rich Americans. It’s after Martin’s searches in Ireland coming to a dead end that he decides on an arduous task. He decides to get the answers by visiting the United States and having Philomena accompany him.

Upon arrival in the United States, he learns through various search sites that Anthony and Mary were adopted by Doc and Marge Hess who renamed him Michael. Michael grew up to be a lawyer and a senior official to the Republic Party during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. He also learns news of heartbreak. Michael died in 1995 at the age of 43. The news naturally breaks Philomena’s heart but soon she wants to meet with people who knew Michael.

She meets one colleague and learns Michael was gay and died of AIDS. She meets up with Mary who grew up with Michael and eventually became a mother. Mary reveals Michael had a boyfriend named Pete Olsson. Pete is unwilling to cooperate despite Martin’s please but it’s not until Philomena pleads face to face with Pete that he complies. The visit with Pete is warm as he tells her of Michael’s childhood and even shows home videos. It’s when Philomena sees a video of Michael at the Sean Ross Abbey that she learns Michael tried looking for her while he was dying. She also learns he was buried over at the Abbey.

It’s then when Martin and Philomena return to the Abbey where it all started. It’s there where Martin can confront Sister Hildegard for being strict on the girls and being deceptive to both Philomena and Michael, whom she told Michael he was abandoned and they lost contact with the mother. Hildegard is unrepentant but surprisingly Philomena approaches her and forgives her. It’s right at Michael’s grave that she can finally meet the son she’s always looked for and finally make peace with her past.

The best quality of the movie is its unpredictability for those who’ve never learned the story. There may be some who have already learned the story of Philomena Lee but most who haven’t. If you don’t, then this movie will surprise you in many areas. It’s not just about Philomena’s search but learning of her son and what happened in the end. The film is full of moments. Moments of happiness, moments of tension, moments of relief, moments of surprise, moments of sadness and moments of humor. The film shows that the trip Philomena went on was not just about leaning about what came of her son but also her own personal journey of healing. A healing that needed to happen and occurred in unexpected ways.

Another great quality is the portrayal of the characters themselves. Philomena comes across as a very likeable and charming woman. Nevertheless one would question how smart she is at times and even question her faith if it’s just routine or even strong. Philomena is seen as simple and sometimes blames herself for a lot of wrongs in her life. However she comes across at the end as a stronger person than one would originally think. The biggest surprise is it would be Martin who most seems to have problems and issues while Philomena, who is the one who actually endured trauma, who still smiles at life in the end despite the harshness she went through.

Martin himself comes across as your typical egotistical journalist who appears to want to destroy the Catholic Church with his pen but somehow has a softening of heart once Philomena comes into his life. He will first make one wonder what his true intentions of helping Philomena learn of her son is: to really help Philomena or to get a great story published. In the end, he comes off as rather likeable for a journalist. Proof that even a journalist can have a heart!

I know there may be some Catholic readers that may be hesitant about seeing this film and the way the Catholic Church is portrayed. Yes, it’s surprising that Catholics would be more concerned about their depiction of the Church in a film that’s not by Martin Scorsese than whether Scorsese’s latest has another slamming of the Catholic Church in his latest. Even I myself was a bit concerned about seeing this as I saw The Magdalene Sisters ten years ago and it really was a nasty depiction of nuns and priests as well as a harsh but true look at the abuse the girls received. Philomena doesn’t show the girls in the laundries suffering abuse. It shows then doing the laundry but it does show the heartbreak of a teenage Philomena as she sees Anthony taken away from a distant window. It also shows Sister Hildegard to be unapologetic for all she’s done, not even for the girls that died during childbirth.

Actually in retrospect, I think it makes the Catholic Church look like the bad guy while the Catholic faith comes across as a positive thing in the end. One will first think of Philomena’s Catholic faith as something too ritualistic or forced upon her and even prone to break at one point but one will see in the end that it’s her faith that helps her through her hard times. In fact Philomena’s response to why she forgives Sister Hildegard in from of Martin will astonish the audience and will surprise many about how forgiveness is actually a form of personal strength.  As for The Wolf Of Wall Street, Catholics should relax as the most there is in it is a joke about nuns which is the tamest taunting of the Catholic church I’ve seen is a Scorsese movie in years. I feel Philomena’s story of her search is an uplifting story of hurt and eventual healing.

Without a doubt, the standout of the film is the performance of Judi Dench. Judi is one of those actresses who really knows how to excel with age. I may have seen better acting performances from her but her portrayal of Philomena was excellent in showing the many dimensions of Philomena Lee as well as adding a charm to her. Steve Coogan was also very good in what I feel to be the best acting I’ve seen from him. His role as Martin didn’t have the same dimension as Philomena but it was a very good performance. Coogan also did a very good job of scriptwriting with Jeff Pope. The story keeps one interested especially for those who don’t know the story of Philomena Lee. Stephen Frears may not as done as spectacular job in directing as Judi did in acting and as Jeff and Steve did in writing but it is worthy of respect. It may not be as great as his Oscar-nominated directing in The Queen but it’s still a very good job. Finally, Alexandre Desplat does it again in making the film with his score composition.

Philomena may first appear like a harsh movie about a woman hurt by her past and finally looking for answers. In the end it turns out to be more bittersweet than harsh and will leave one feeling Philomena did win in the end.