Volume 76, Number 10 | July 26 - August 1, 2006

Film

Courtesy Strand Releasing

Melvil Poupaud plays the terminally ill Romain in “Time to Live,” a film about coming to terms with mortality.

In ‘Time to Leave,’ a dying man fights to the bitter end

By Leonard Quart

Francois Ozon has made a lean, controlled, meditative second film in a prospective trilogy about mourning (“Under the Sand” starring Charlotte Rampling was the first). The film’s protagonist is a gay, handsome, successful 31-year-old fashion photographer, Romain (Melvil Poupaud), who has terminal cancer and only a few months to live. He refuses to undergo chemotherapy, and then begins to deal with how to live with the little time that he has left.

Romain is an egotistical, not particularly likable character—the kind of man who doesn’t arouse instant sympathy. He snaps at his assistant, mercilessly baits his fragile, single-mother sister, snorts large quantities of coke, and decides to live out his last months without a coherent plan, merely trying to follow his instincts. And his prime instinct is to make some peace with himself. He detaches himself from his family—his charismatic, somewhat absent father and empathetic mother—and with deliberate cruel abruptness ends his relationship with his lover, without telling any of them about his illness. The only person that he decides to convey that he is dying to, because she too  ‘’will be dying soon,’’ is the grandmother he has deep affection for.

The iconic Jeanne Moreau, in a role she has played innumerable times before, plays the weathered, world-wise grandmother. She offers Romain the warm understanding and consolation of somebody who, with full awareness, has lived through all sorts of life experiences—both traumatic and exhilarating—and survived intact.

Ozon shoots the film from Romain’s perspective, with the film’s other characters just reacting to him and their lives basically left unexplored. Romain is not stoical about dying, he cries, bangs his head against a wall, takes photos of the living, and tearfully recalls his childhood. The childhood images are innocent moments that he resurrects, so he can savor them one last time. The scenes could have been emotionally manipulative, but Ozon avoids doing that by leaving them as almost wordless flashes that merely suggest the child Romain once was.

Romain never undergoes any miraculous changes. He does not, like Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych, discover on his death bed his humanity and suddenly perceive that personal relationships are the most important thing in the world.

However, he softens a bit. He calls his sister and speaks about being touched by her letter invoking the love they once shared, and meets his lover again and they part with a touch of tenderness. There is one glaring false note in a film whose strength is its emotional honesty and lack of sentimentality. Romain impregnates a complete stranger, whose husband is sterile, to leave the legacy of a child, an act that seems totally out of character.

The film’s conclusion, however, is subtly and exquisitely handled. A wraith-like, slightly tottering Romaine travels to a beach resort, alone, and in the final scene, we realize that even without the help of friends and family, he has managed to make peace with himself.

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