Romain, the center of FranÃ§ois Ozon‘s "Time to Leave," is given the best gift a fictional character could wish for: the opportunity to die, elegantly, in CinemaScope. We’re scarcely into the film when we learn alongside him that he’s got a terminal brain tumor. He refuses chemotherapy, seeing it as futile, and instead heads off to take a wrecking ball to his life â€” lashing out at his sister, breaking up with his boyfriend, quitting his job as a rising fashion photographer â€” before finally coming to terms with himself. The film is a kind of backward portrait, in which at first we’re left to deduce who Romain is, or was, by the damage he does, by the people who are left bewildered by his inexplicable behavior. The only one he confides in is his grandmother, played by Jeanne Moreau (pushing 80 and still a redoubtable presence), because, as he tells her with cruel honesty, "You’re like me. You’ll be dying soon."
"Time to Leave" is also the most arty of guilty pleasures, a decadent and moving melodrama in which someone folds up the loose ends of his life like a blanket to be tucked away â€” the feel-good death film of the summer. Played by Melvil Poupaud, Romain is an unearthly beauty for whom dying only seems to highlight his bone structure and bring out an inner luminescence. Ozon’s has never been one for gritty realism, and he claims Douglas Sirk as his inspiration for "Time to Leave," which may explain some of the film’s overtly cinematic loveliness. At times it’s in line with what’s happening on screen â€” as if life becomes sharper and brighter once you learn you’ll soon part ways with it â€” and other times it’s a distancing distraction, as are watery-eyed scenes of Romain envisioning his moppet-like childhood self. A dying man entitled to a little self-contemplation, but must it be so literal?
Two scenes stand out: in the first, Romain feels freed, as his father (Daniel Duval) drives him home, to ask difficult questions about family issues they’d always skirted around before, and his father replies with weary and heartbreaking candor. In the second, a waitress (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, from "5×2") approaches Romain in a rest stop restaurant. She will, later in the film, give him the opportunity to father a child, an offer that’s preposterous while also being necessary â€” the final signpost on Romain’s journey from self-loathing. But for now she simply drawn to him, and sits down with him at the table, a question hovering at her lips, even as he confesses to her that "I’m not a nice person." It’s an odd and exquisite little moment in the slanting afternoon sun in which the film almost stills â€” but Romain has places to go, and so it ends.
Opens in New York on July 14.
+ "Time to Leave" (Strand Releasing)