Thursday, September 14, 2006
"May I introduce you?"
Romaine is a young French photographer working on a hip fashion spread for a popular magazine. But in the middle of the shoot, Romaine passes out and is taken to the hospital. After some tests he meets with his doctor who says he has some bad news. Being gay, Romaine fears that he has AIDS. But his doctor says no.
DOCTOR: "No. You have a malignant tumor."
What Romaine has is terminal cancer. His doctor says that chemotherapy might prolong his life but when pressed, he admits the chances are slim. So Romaine gambles on the odds of facing cancer without chemo, even if that means he only has three months to live. There's a deliberate sense of melodrama to this premise. It's like Bette Davis getting a death sentence from her doctor in Dark Victory . But in Time to Leave, French filmmaker Francois Ozon gives the weepie formula a twist. To begin with, he makes Romaine unsympathetic rather than bravely noble. Not only does Romaine refuse to tell anyone about his cancer but he also he goes out of his way to alienate those who love him.
CLIP "Fight with sister"
He acts outs, like a spoiled child, and verbally abuses his sister and mother. It's as if the cancer gives Romaine an excuse to embrace solitude and cut himself off from the rest of the world. Ozon is interested in Romaine's reaction to death. Time to Leave is the second part of the filmmaker's planned trilogy on death and grief. The first part was Under the Sand in which a woman's husband disappears in the ocean and is presumed dead. That film was about her inability to accept the loss. Time to Leave offers not so much a narrative story as a contemplation on death-what would you do if you had three months to live? Romaine's answer is that it's something very personal and that he'd like to face on his own. Ozon avoids sentimentality, but does allow Romaine to slowly emerge from his selfishness. That change begins with a visit he makes to his grandmother played by the legendary Jeanne Moreau. Romaine confides his secret in her because they have something in common-they're both facing death. In one scene she goes through all her medications...
CLIP Grandmother lists all the pills she takes as she shakes each bottle
She then jokes that when she dies she will be in perfect health. These scenes between Romaine and his grandmother are the best in the film. Not only is it wonderful to see Moreau on the screen, but it's also a pleasure to see the character of Romaine open and reveal his emotions. Romaine is also challenged to engage in the world by a waitress he meets.
WAITRESS: "Are you finished?"
The waitress has a bizarre request. Her husband is sterile but they would like to have a baby. So she asks if Romaine would be willing to impregnate her. Romaine is taken aback for multiple reasons: he doesn't like children, he's gay and he's about to die. This twist proves to be the most contrived aspect of the film but Ozon resolves it with such unexpected tenderness that we're willing to accept it. It also allows Romaine to finally think about something beyond himself.
As a photographer, Romaine's has looked at the world through a lens, snapping superficial images that he has no connection to and keeping the real world at a safe distance. When his sister reaches out across that distance, Romaine doesn't know how to respond.
So he chooses to apologize to his sister over the phone rather than in person. Details like this make Time to Leave a well-observed character study. Ozon ends his films as he began, at the beach. But the opening shot was of Romaine as a boy and the end shot is of him at 31-year-old man ready to die. In both shots the sound of the waves sooth him.
The sound is soothing to viewers as well, it makes us feel that there is a natural cycle to things and it helps us accept Romaine's imminent death. Time to Leave is not as layered nor as complex as some of Francois Ozon's earlier work. But it displays an increasingly mature and restrained style from a bad boy of French cinema. It's also noteworthy for the performances of Melvil Poupard as Romaine and Jeanne Moreau as the grandmother-two people facing their own mortality, and trying to exit this world with grace and dignity.
Time to Leave is in French with English subtitles. It is unrated but recommended for mature audiences.
Companion viewing: Under the Sand, 8 Women, Dark Victory