I’m very excited to attend the annual Provincetown Film Festival later this week, my eighth year at the festival and my third year reviewing it for my blog. (Look for my report on the highlights of this year’s festival here sometime next week.) Back in 2006, my favorite film at the festival was François Ozon’s masterful and heartbreaking Time to Leave, which has one of the saddest, most beautiful endings of any film I’ve ever seen.
Based on his other films that I’ve watched (Hideaway/Le Refuge and several short films), Ozon is clearly among the most gifted filmmakers of his generation, and certainly also one of its best gay screenwriters/directors. The gay themes are quite central in Time to Leave, though always seamlessly incorporated and never stilted or overstated. Romain, portrayed by the handsome Melvil Poupaud in a rigorous and finely modulated performance, is an in-demand fashion photographer who lives in Paris with his younger blond boyfriend, Sasha (Christian Sengewald). Early in the movie, Romain suddenly blacks out and collapses during a photo shoot. A doctor diagnoses him with a malignant tumor and gives him only three months to live. Forced to make an excruciating decision, Romain chooses not to be treated for the illness.
Instead, he begins to sever ties almost immediately with those closest to him. He disrupts a family dinner by harshly criticizing his sister, Sophie (Louise-Anne Hippeau), with whom he’s often been at odds, and he breaks off his relationship with Sasha, making him move out of their apartment. All of this transpires as he refrains from telling any of them about his terminal diagnosis, a way of sparing them the pain of knowing, ultimately.
The only family member whom Romain informs about his illness is his supportive and soft-spoken grandmother, Laura (played by Poupaud’s actual grandmother, the French screen legend Jeanne Moreau). The two share a moving scene at her country home, exchanging carefully crafted, heartfelt dialogue that emphasizes their mutual solitude and feelings toward their imminent mortality. Laura encourages Romain, just as his physician did, to try to overcome the cancer. And while she respects her grandson's decision not to undergo chemotherapy treatments, she’s also devastated by the loss that she will soon have to face.
I’ve often wondered if I would do the same thing as Romain if I ever found myself in his position. The world has been disenchanting enough to me — and the idea of “fighting” a terminal disease off-putting enough — that I can readily relate to Romain’s situation, and perhaps even empathize with it. As the late critic Susan Sontag wisely argued in her 1988 book AIDS and Its Metaphors, “The body is not a battlefield,” and we are not “authorized to fight back” against diseases in the militaristic sense, whenever our bodies are assumed to be under attack. Cancers and viruses are just natural biological occurrences, and the idea of “battling” them means that their bearers have lost the battle in the event that they die, to some extent unfairly placing the blame on them. Paraphrasing Lucretius in her conclusion, Sontag urges us to hand the militaristic metaphor for fighting illnesses “back to the war-makers.”
It’s not coincidental to mention AIDS in relation to Time to Leave; AIDS is actually mentioned in the diagnostic stage of Romain’s health crisis, and again later during an important subplot. Any gay man beyond the age of thirty who watches this film about a young gay man helplessly (but bravely) enduring a debilitating, life-threatening illness won’t be able to avoid the comparison. In fact, by the movie’s end, several older gay men sitting in front of me at the festival screening were crying very real tears, no doubt partly due to those associations.
Ozon’s films always place the body in a central position of interest. His camera is obviously attracted to Poupaud’s lanky frame and darkly delicate facial features here. The one-take scene in which Romain buzzes off his curly head of hair is a kind of face-off with the camera (and his character) regarding the excesses of beauty. And a scene featuring Romain in bed with Sasha doesn’t shy away from showing Poupaud fully aroused, just as his character would be in real life. The interplay of bodies on the screen in Ozon’s films is both lush and overt, intimate and threatened. Somehow he manages to capture the boldness and vulnerability of the body at once, its naked directness and its shy hesitation; the same words could be used to describe the characters’ emotional interplay as well. What’s whispered between characters (and unheard by the audience) in Ozon’s films is as crucial as the spoken dialogue that we hear.
This is especially true during the film’s key subplot. A young married couple (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Walter Pagano), who work at a roadside café that Romain frequents, casually approach him to ask if he will help them father a child, due to the husband’s infertility. I doubt that the scene in which the threesome consummates this act could be more expertly handled than it is by Mr. Ozon and these actors. Many movies have attempted it, surely, and most others have fallen short on some level, emotionally, sexually, or otherwise.
As Romain grows frailer and his energy wanes while cancer runs its course, he’s also genuinely pleased that he’ll have an heir, and that he’s given two other people such a generous gift as his final gesture. Knowing that his end is near, he boards a train to a remote coastal town, where he goes swimming alone on a crowded beach, echoing the footsteps of his boyhood self from the film’s opening images. He then lies down on his towel one last time as the beach gradually empties and the sun slowly ticks down to the line of the horizon.
Melvil Poupaud shed a good deal of weight to match his character’s physical state, and as the actor approaches this final scene, he seems at times almost unable to bear the gravity of losing a gorgeous and promising young man at such an early age. And despite François Ozon’s peerless cinematic composure in the last few frames, it’s clear that he felt exactly the same way.