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MOVIE REVIEW

‘Summer of 85’: Can darkness be sun splashed?

Benjamin Voisin, left and Félix Lefebvre in François Ozon’s "Summer of 85."Music Box Films

Watching a François Ozon film is like playing the old shell game against a sidewalk shark — wherever you think the marble’s going to be, it’s not, and wherever you think an Ozon movie’s going, it isn’t. “Summer of 85,” the latest from the prolific director of “Swimming Pool” (2002) and “By the Grace of God” (2018), looks like a sunny, sybaritic gay coming-of-age story along the lines of Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name” (2017), but it turns out to be something darker and more ambiguous, less about sexuality than self.

The irony is that Ozon serves up both sides with flair. The first half of “Summer of 85” is one long, extended swoon on the beaches of Le Tréport, in Normandy, after 16-year-old Alex (Félix Lefebvre) goes out for a sail, capsizes during a squall, and is rescued by David (Benjamin Voisin), an insouciant 18-year-old with charisma to spare. Both boys are working class — Alex’s father (Laurent Fernandez) is a fisherman and David’s mother (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) runs the local marine store — but the younger boy has the makings of a writer, with a concerned teacher (Melvil Poupaud) trying to steer him back to the classroom.

Félix Lefebvre, left, and Benjamin Voisin in "Summer of 85."Music Box Films

David dashes all such considerations aside for a burgeoning romance keyed to melting mid-’80s pop hits by The Cure (“In Between Days”) and Bananarama (“Cruel Summer”). Voisin is raffish and rangy and as hard to pin down as a bead of mercury; Alex can’t help crushing on him and neither can the director (and neither may you, regardless of your sexuality). “Summer of 85” is based on “Dance on My Grave,” a 1982 young adult novel by Aidan Chambers, and it retains Alex’s narrative voice, one that aches with the primal thrills of a teenager discovering everything for the first time but that also holds the reader and the audience at a slight distance. Not for nothing is one of the film’s emotional peaks a shot of Alex under headphones on a nightclub dance floor, blissing out by himself to the strains of Rod Stewart’s “Sailing.” And not for nothing do the opening scenes show Alex being brought in by the police for questioning.

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Ozon pulls a bit of a bait and switch here, leading us to expect the worst of the distraught hero before switching things up in the final stretch. The romance goes astray when David, who’s not gay or bisexual so much as omnisexual, trysts with Kate, a vacationing Londoner (Philippine Velge), and sets off Alex’s jealousy in ways that become increasingly unhinged. Like sneak-into-a-morgue-while-dressed-as-a-woman unhinged. But it’s just as possible that some of the doings are unfolding in the version of the story that Alex is writing at the urging of the teacher and a sympathetic case worker (Aurore Broutin) to explain his actions to the police.

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Félix Lefebvre, left, and Benjamin Voisin in "Summer of 85."Music Box Films

In other words, “Summer of 85” balances intriguingly but a little too murkily on a fulcrum of unreliable narration, and it becomes impossible to tell whether Ozon means us to take the story at face value or undercutting Alex’s own melodramatic pronouncements. The answer is very probably both, which can make for a frustrating if gorgeously filmed time. It’s a cruel summer, in other words, but a crueler director.

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★★★

SUMMER OF 85

Directed by François Ozon. Written by Ozon, based on a novel by Aidan Chambers. Starring Félix Lefebvre, Benjamin Voisin, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Philippine Velge. In French, with subtitles. At Kendall Square. 101 minutes. Unrated (as R: sexuality, brief nudity).