Melvil Poupaud, Jeanne Moreau, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi
If you were told you had only a couple of months left to live, what would you do? In Time to Leave, French writer-director Francois Ozon meditates on how we prepare ourselves for our death. Surprisingly, this isn’t as downbeat and depressing as it sounds, even if it is the second part in Ozon’s intended trilogy of films about mourning (begun in 2000’s hauntingly impressive Under the Sand).
Romain (Melvil Poupaud) is a self-centred, gay, thirty year old fashion photographer, whose glossily throwaway work mirrors a superficial life. When terminal cancer is diagnosed, he’s understandably shattered and the film follows Romain’s personal journeys, interior and exterior, in the time that remains to him. Retreating from friends and family, Romain wants to face the end on his own terms. But at what price? At odds with his sister, distanced from his boyfriend Sasha and failing to connect with his father, Romain journeys to see his grandmother (veteran Jeanne Moreau) and revisits his childhood memories.
Ozon’s melodrama marks a change from his more usual feminine focus (Under the Sand, 8 Women, Swimming Pool) and tries out the male perspective. Poetic, visually crisp and wonderfully concise – impressively so in an age of flabby films – this is recognizably an Ozon picture. That’s why it was never going to be a tissue-box weepie. It’s sentimental but the trademark ambiguity and pared-down plotting keep things contemplatively cool. Nevertheless there are some sweetly offbeat touches – Romain, apprehensive of his approaching death, looks into a mirror and sees his childhood self looking back, apprehensive of his approaching future.
As a meditation, Time to Leave works well. As a drama it stumbles. The situation demands we feel for the hero but the characters are seemingly at the service of the film’s themes and images, and the artificiality soon has a distancing effect. Romain’s chance encounter with a childless couple looking for a surrogate father seems like a contrivance to bring on the theme of male potency. So too, the early-on glimpse of Romain’s erection (no doubt earning the film its 18 certificate), seems included simply to make a point about the lust for life and the means of its transmission.
The minimalist music, the stand-off lens that lifts the performances off the actors’ faces, the back-where-we-started book-ending of the film, are typical Ozon. But in spite of visible direction, he remains as thematically enigmatic as ever, preferring to let viewers draw their own conclusions. “What’s the point?” Romain asks, faced with the life’s ultimate questions. An Ozon film never tells you. But it certainly gives you creative space to think, and which of us doesn’t need that?
Time to Leave earths itself in some sort of reality, but the film is ultimately more meditative than moving. Yet the final images, ripe though they are, have a powerful, positive resonance that remains with you long after it’s time to leave.