29 October 2008
Death Clicks: Time to Leave/Le Temps qui reste (François Ozon/2005)
In 2000, acclaimed French film-maker François Ozon took a restrained, poetic view of the grieving process in Under the Sand, which explored the life of Charlotte Rampling’s English professor after the sudden disappearance of her husband. In Time to Leave (2005), Ozon reassembles that earlier film’s themes and posits gay photographer Romain (Melvil Poupard) as the recipient of bad tidings: he has terminal cancer with a few months left to live. Whereas Rampling glided from tragedy to uncertainty, here the scenario is reversed; through the foreknowledge of impending death, the protagonist grieves for himself. It is the second film in a proposed trilogy: Under the Sand explored the death of a loved one; Time to Leave looks at one’s own imminent death; the third, as yet unrealised part will examine the death of a child.
The slight narrative unfolds with a forlornness that befits Romain’s condition; he briskly segues from one encounter to another in an attempt to understand the reality of his situation. Over the course of a slim 85 minutes the film gradually reveals how the news seeps into Romain’s mind: Ozon seasonably uses several fluent flashbacks to Romain’s childhood, allowing us access to his formative innocence and elegantly drawing comparisons to how he is presented to us now – a man at conflict with himself, trying to do what he deems right. Romain keeps loved ones at bay; his sister, Sophie, and boyfriend, Sasha, are two casualties of his new-found dispossession – he may appear selfish in his actions, but the sacrifices he makes are for the benefit of those around him.
With the film’s emphasis on the photographic image, it’s fitting that Ozon’s eye for delicate compositions – aided by Jeanne Lapoirie’s luminous camerawork - is evident throughout. Whether it’s the image of sleeping lovers or a sunlit park, the cinematography is tenderly distinctive, becoming darker as the finality of Romain’s condition draws near (a foreboding air looms disconcertingly over the beach in the last scene). At times it veers into shop-worn territory (images of dead flowers and unmade beds literalise the death metaphor and are reminiscent of the work of such photographers as Wolfgang Tillmans and Nan Goldin), but it also reinforces the nature of Romain’s profession.
There is a beautiful economy to the editing. Ozon regular Monica Coleman succinctly cuts scenes to act almost as bullet points, punctuating key moments in Romain’s life. The reactions of family to the news – save for Jeanne Moreau as Romain’s grandmother and sole confidant, Laura – aren’t shown, not only because Romain neglects to tell them, but also because the one reaction that matters most to Ozon is Romain’s own. Romain has a seemingly selfish agenda to put right his wrongs, and in doing so focuses on what matters to him. That Romain doesn’t come across as wholly insensitive is due to the vulnerable sincerity of Melvil Poupard’s performance; it is fearless, yet fragile. The camera, through the use of probing close-ups, scrutinises his face for every touch of emotion; there is torment behind his eyes despite the steely façade. Indeed, the acting, all round, is superb. Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, who suffered gracefully in Ozon’s 2004 film, 5x2, brings a desperate sensitivity to the small, crucial role of a waitress who provides Romain with an unexpected legacy; and Moreau is nicely wry in her brief cameo, lending a maternal shoulder on which Romain pours out his woes.
Occasionally Time to Leave teeters towards melodrama. The sentimentality imbued in the narrative propels events, but the film skillfully avoids descending into mawkishness, unlike the more saccharine moments that threatened to consume Isabel Coixet’s similarly themed My Life Without Me (2003). The story is clearly personal for Ozon (both he and Romain see the world through a lens), but this film noticeably diverges from the restrained depiction of life-changing events in both 5x2 and Under the Sand: Ozon has moved on, but not necessarily ahead. Ultimately Romain becomes a mere silhouette, reposed against a picture-postcard sunset, evaporating into darkness. This last image could have easily come across as cloying and needlessly trite, but (despite being somewhat overly metaphorical) under Ozon’s firm control it retains a spare beauty that closes the film on an elegant note.
© Craig Bloomfield 2006