Monday, September 14, 2020

François Ozon | Le Temps qui reste (Time to Leave)

by Douglas Messerli

François Ozon (writer and director) Le Temps qui reste (Time to Leave) / 2005 

In a very early scene of François Ozon’s 2005 film, Le Temps qui reste (Time to Leave), the central character, Romain (Melvil Poupaud) is told by his doctor that he is suffering from a metastasized cancerous tumor and, while still encouraging him to undergo chemotherapy, estimates that he has less than a 5% chance of survival.
     Romain, a successful fashion photographer, refuses to go the medical route, determining instead, bit by bit, to tear apart the seemingly perfect world in which he has, until this moment, lived, including a rather doting family, particularly a sister (Louise-Anne Hippeau) with whom he was once best of friends, his handsome lover Sasha (Christian Sengewald), a stubbornly independent but absolutely adoring grandmother (the incomparable Jeanne Moreau), a career that brings in a substantial amount of money each year, and, perhaps most importantly, a beautiful torso and face that he relies upon to attract almost everyone he meets including, later in the film, a waitress in a roadside diner that wants to have a baby with him.
     I’ll return to that last tidbit of information later, but for now we observe him arrogantly abusing an assistant for her choice of a model’s blouse, mocking his sister for her demands that he pay more attention to her children, chiding his father for his extramarital affairs, and demanding his lover break up with him and leave their chic apartment immediately, despite the fact that Sasha appears to be without a job. Most importantly, he refuses to tell any of them accept his beloved grandmother about his impending death.
     By this time in Ozon’s movie, not even quite a third of the way in, one can only perceive Romain as such a despicable figure that it is difficult to arouse within oneself any empathy for his predicament.
     The New York Times critic A. O. Scott reiterates these feelings in his 2006 review of the film:  

…Romain…is reckless, selfish and abrasively real. He chases his lover away and delights in antagonizing his sister, whom he was close to as a child but who is now his principal scapegoat and antagonist. Mr. Poupaud, who played Naomi Watts’s straying husband in Le Divorce, is certainly beautiful, and Romain is the kind of man who heedlessly takes advantage of the power his looks confer. He knows he will be indulged and forgiven and does whatever he can to test the forbearance of the people who care for him.

     When our ill protagonist perceives that Sasha, instead of immediately leaving, has fallen asleep on their downstairs couch, Romain puts away his fashionable Hasselblad and pulls out a small camera, shooting snapshots of his sleeping ex-lover. If we might perceive in this act a smidgen of contrition for the chaos he has wrought, we have also to recognize it as a voyeuristic collecting of memories of the body he has just discarded.
     So too, if we recognize that much of Romain’s behavior so far in this film is due to an adversity to all things sentimental, Orzon has nonetheless served it up with his rather simple plot that can only emphasize that sentimentality. As in Tom Ford’s cinematic presentation of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man the requisite action of Time to Leave has no choice other than to be concerned with the question of what a man does on the last day, or in this case, the few last days of his life.
      As if to breathe some possible life into his bronzed idol, Orzon sends Romain off on a trip to his grandmother for a series of episodes where the two, both caring for one another and facing death, share secrets for survival, however short of time that represents. And, in fact, if there was ever a series of scenes that promise sentimentality, it is these, in which Romain tells her what he has dared not reveal to the others.    
      Fortunately, Moreau is such a professional actor that she transforms herself from an old, loving granny who might otherwise have allowed us to drop a tear or two, into an emblem of such shear cussedness concerning the emotional reactions of others that we almost laugh instead of crying. In short, the cruelty of the world, for her, is simply a test of one’s own convictions. Is it any wonder that the totally self-focused photographer finds solace in her presence.
     He also snaps photos of his grandmother, and later, in a Paris park, where he stands apart unnoticed, also sneaks photo shots of his sister and her kids. In what he has described as a needed vacation from the fashion industry, he has discovered instead the banal art family portraiture.
     That may be a perfectly explicable hobby for those near death. I recall that as my mother grew older, I printed out photos of our family to put in an album so that my mother might recall their presence. But in this case, we can only wonder for what purpose he is doing this, since surely he cannot long enjoy these images. Does he imagine that his family and lover will one day be able to redeem his selfish actions through their recognition that he had cared enough about them to want to memorialize their existence in photographs.
     In a sense, this is seemingly related to the truck-stop waitress (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) I earlier mentioned, who he meets on his trip to his grandmother’s house. In a kind of metaphoric sense, she is a bit like the wolf, who is absolutely ready to swallow this pretty boy up. Since her husband is infertile, yet they both desire to have a baby, she selects the perfect stranger, Romain, to be the father. He politely rejects her invitation.
      Yet later, in a change of mind, he accepts the couple’s offer, returning to the truck-stop where in a nearby room he has sex with the woman, Jany while her husband kisses her and holds her hands, presumably, resulting in the baby for which they now all three wish.
      I am sure that for most theater-goers this action will represent a healthy reformation of the hero’s previous attitudes. Along with visions of himself as a child, he has now recognized that he is a part of the universal chain of life and death that makes for a meaningful life. He can now die in peace. It is “time to go,” just has he has realized new life in both the unborn child he has conceived and the child in himself who has brought the 31-year-old man to his completed definition as a human being. How many times have we been taught that life is not defined until the human who held it has died?
     Yet there is something terribly pernicious in this, particularly given Orzon’s almost Death in Venice-like ending of his tale. Sitting on the beach, much like the chaste but still desirous Gustav von Aschenbach watches a young boy swimming nearby: the vision of himself as child that has been haunting him. But this time, with almost a smile on his face, he accepts the vast separation between the child and himself, and can bask, we imagine, in that fact that child he has conceived with Jany will soon join the world which he must now leave.
      As the sun sets, the other swimmers disappear as Romain remains, now simply a body on the beach waiting to be retrieved.
     This I would argue, however, is part and parcel of his newfound fascination with his sister’s children, his own parental relationships, and his acceptance of fathering a newborn. It is precisely, I’d argue, a heterosexual normative fantasy, not the gay reality with which the movie began. The director (many of whose films, incidentally, I have greatly admired) seems to be arguing for—or possibly just pointing out the normative expectations—that before Romain can find any peace in life, he must reform, leaving his homosexual lover behind to become a responsible human being in the heterosexual world. It is not accidental that just after kicking his lover out of the house, the photographer severely cuts his hair, as if leaving his past behind.
     He might never have felt that it was “time to leave” in the world of male lovers and fashion models he once inhabited. To “cross-over”—as some believers euphemistically describe death—it appears, if you buy into this sophistic logic, you must also “cross-over” sexually to discover what Wordsworth expressed:

                 My heart leaps up when I behold
                 A rainbow in the sky:
                 So was it when my life began;
                 So is it now I am a man;
                 So be it when I shall grow old,
                 Or let me die!
                 The Child is father of the Man;
                 And I could wish my days to be
                 Bound each to each by natural piety.

      Inevitably the gay Romain was perceived as “despicable,” bound as he was to his own childhood nature—his inborn homosexuality and the selfishness for which over the centuries LGBTQ individuals have been scolded*—but as a newly transformed progenitor he can now go quietly to his grave without the blemishes of his former life. Lord help those, like me, who might “not go tender into that good night.”

*Even as he lay dying my father kept describing me as “the stubborn one,” by which I am certain he meant that I had not permitted anyone to convince me that I should have abandoned my gay life to become a heterosexual like my siblings. He could not conceive that it was not a matter of choice.

Los Angeles, September 14, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (September 2020).

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