by Douglas Messerli
François Ozon (writer and director) Une robe d'été (A Summer Dress) / 1996
François Ozon’s short of 1996, A Summer Dress, is almost a formalist film in which its simple structure plays on lyrics of a song which Sébastian (Sébastian Charles) performs before his lover Luc (Frédéric Mangenot) in an attempt to entice him into sex.
As his lover seductively waves his ass in rhythm to his dance while lip-synching the 1960s French pop singer Sheila’s version of Sonny Bono’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),” Luc openly expresses his irritation.
The dyed blonde-haired Sébastian, we also note, is a bit effeminate, and Luc chastises him for singing “fag” music and performing outside where everyone might see him before he shuts the music off, which Sébastian immediately starts up again, forcing Luc, as he himself insists, to leave—much as the song also decries—without saying goodbye.
What we do now realize is that these two males are having some sort of difficulty regarding notions of masculinity. Indeed the song itself calls up some of those issues, particularly as Sheila and Cher before her sang it, putting the emphasis not on the narrative of lost love the way Nancy Sinatra (whose recording as used in the film Kill Bill) and Lady Gaga do—both treating it as a quiet love ballad—but upon the words signifying the sound of the gun of the childhood cowboy game, suggesting that the singer and her relationship had died even before her lover left as an adult without saying goodbye.
I was five and he was six
We rode on horses made of sticks
He wore black and I wore white
He would always win the fight
Bang bang, he shot me down
Bang bang, I hit the ground
Bang bang, that awful sound
Bang bang, my baby shot me down
Seasons came and changed the time
When I grew up, I called him mine
He would always laugh and say
"Remember when we used to play?"
Bang bang, I shot you down
Bang bang, you hit the ground
Bang bang, that awful sound
Bang bang, I used to shoot you down
When he awakens from his tanning slumber, a Spanish girl, Lucia, hovers over his naked body asking for her cigarette to be lit. She settles in the sand next to him and without even missing a beat invites him to join her in the woods. When he asks, “And why,” she explicitly tells him “I want to make love.”
We can only imagine that the man overseeing the act might be Sébastian and we must presume that the same thought surely has crossed Luc’s mind. Indeed, after the sexual act, he almost apologizes, not for the sex, but for his lies. He has had sex before, although with a woman, and he is not vacationing with his family. She immediately recognizes him as a “gay boy,” congratulating him for providing such pleasure to a woman.
Upon reaching his and Sébastian’s vacation flat, he suddenly greets his lover with an apparently renewed energy, kissing him while still in the dress, and allowing himself to be immediately dragged into the room where Sébastian repeats the sexual act Luc has just performed on Lucia, even ripping some of the g irl’s dress in the process. If nothing else, we quickly recognize there has been a major switch in both their senses of sexual prowess as well as an alteration in their personal notions of the standard cultural dichotomy of what it means to be masculine and feminine. If Sébastian previously was referenced as a feminine queer “fag,” he now is dominate to his new male-in-drag lover.
In other words, their entire sex life has been reversed in a way that also echoes the lyrics of the Bono song as their actions have repeated the explosive chorus of “Bang bang, bang bang,” Both gay men, in alternative ways, are banging a female figure in an attempt of restoring their masculinity.
I’d argue against Ozon’s apparent concern with the masculine/feminine dichotomy. If some critics such as Thibault Shilt, writing in Senses of Cinema, suggest that the director is exploring these boys’ sexual fluidity as they find new and innovative ways to keep their love alive, to me it appears as simply another way of shuffling normative notions of sexual identity, even if there is also a somewhat comic element to all this “banging.”
Ozon’s films often frustrate me in just that way. Yet, they are nonetheless always interesting for the passionate responses they invoke. And no one who loves film can deny his cinematic skills in investigating various aspects of the LGBTQ community.
Los Angeles, October 20, 2020
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (October 2020).