No Pain, No Gain

Washington City Paper | August 18, 2006
Of all the people who claim that François Ozon is the new Rainer Werner Fassbinder, none is more befuddled by the connection than Ozon himself. As was Fassbinder, Ozon is a gay European art-film director who’s inspired by Douglas Sirk’s deeply ambivalent ’50s melodramas. But where Fassbinder moved from provocation to provocation, Ozon rarely causes a stir, no matter how hard he tries. His new Time to Leave, like so many of its predecessors, packs lots of attitude but makes very little impact.

In the manner of Fassbinder and another of his successors, Pedro Almodóvar, Ozon often devises scenarios for female protagonists but sometimes takes a gay man as his central character. Time to Leave’s story centers on Romain (Melvil Poupaud), a successful Paris fashion photographer who’s about to fly to Japan when his doctor gives him good reason to cancel the trip: Romain has a malignant brain tumor, and his odds of survival are less than 5 percent.

Romain decides not to seek treatment or, for that matter, sympathy. He cruelly expels boyish boyfriend Sasha (Christian Sengewald) and declines to repair his tattered connections to his parents and family. (He’s particularly hostile to his sister, apparently because she’s damaged his memories of their happy childhood by having children of her own.) The only person he can bring himself to tell of his imminent death is his grandmother, a feisty old broad who is both played by and, seemingly, inspired by Jeanne Moreau. She lives near the ocean, and Romain is drawn to the beach as his hours tick away. In fact, it is on his way to and from the seashore that Romain encounters the person who draws him back—psychically, not physically—to life. She’s a roadside-cafe waitress (played by Valéria Bruni-Tedeschi, who starred in Ozon’s previous film, 5 X 2) who asks him to father her child, a preposterous development that leads to an even more outlandish event.

In its matter-of-fact depiction of drugs and unapologetic (if not explicit) sexuality, Time to Leave is a modern film. It also takes a relaxed, un-Hollywood approach to narrative, giving equal weight to dramatic upheavals and casual epiphanies. Yet Sirk’s inspiration is evident, and some of the film’s touches are downright old-fashioned. As soon as Romain learns of his likely death, he begins to be shadowed by a curly-headed tyke—himself as a boy. Ozon chose the melancholy minimalism of composer Arvo Pärt to accompany the film’s brooding moments, but the presence of this kid—even when he’s urinating in the holy water—is as sentimental as the most flowery of massed-violin flourishes.

Time to Leave was likely conceived as a complement to Ozon’s best feature, Under the Sand, in which a woman—played by Charlotte Rampling—attempts to deny her husband’s demise. But whereas that film portrayed life after someone else’s death as an impenetrable mystery, this one makes the prelude to doom look remarkably banal and largely painless. Romain ticks off the final preparations as if they’re a routine set of errands, even if he does have to rely on a waitress’ unexpected request to provide a connection to posterity that Fassbinder, for one, would surely have denied. After proposing the ocean as a symbol of oblivion, Ozon makes a sudden shift to present it as the most bourgeois of possible images: the womb.

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