The Dying Gaul


The French director François Ozon gravitates to bodies of water. In his movies, oceans, seas, and even swimming pools are sites of liberation and danger; his characters are forever wading in at their peril. MOMA’s mini-tribute (July 12 and 13) acknowledges this aquatic fixation, bringing together the four (of nine) Ozon features that take place at least partly at the beach. These sunstroked films are hardly summery. See the Sea (1997) nudges a vacationing mother and baby into disturbing proximity with a creepy backpacker. In Under the Sand (2000), which quotes from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, a middle-aged woman loses her husband when he goes for a dip. Last year’s 5×2 ends with a postcard-perfect image—two lovers enjoying a seaside sunset—that the film’s reverse chronology exposes as a trap, or worse yet, a fiction. The new Time to Leave concludes at the beach. A dying man makes the pilgrimage, but this might be the happiest day trip in the Ozon oeuvre. The expansive ocean is here an invitation to let go, a symbol of the equanimous acceptance implied in the title.

The second entry (after Under the Sand) in a trilogy on mourning, Time to Leave is about coming to terms with one’s own death, and it wastes no time starting the countdown. Romain (Melvil Poupaud), a gay, thirtyish Parisian photographer, receives a terminal cancer diagnosis. At dinner that night, he snorts some coke and proceeds to insult his entire family with a brutal bout of truth-telling, though he keeps his illness to himself. Later, seemingly turned on by this new mortal awareness (Ozon’s films have always provocatively intertwined sex and death—or maybe it’s the coke), Romain aggressively fucks his boy-toy lover, then breaks up with him.

Ozon strives to keep the maudlin at bay. Romain, something of a self-obsessed asshole, decides to deal with his impending demise privately (we never actually see him tell anyone he’s dying). His scenes with his grandmother (Jeanne Moreau), a weathered bohemian lioness and the only family member he confides in, are the movie’s loveliest—rooted in a shared knowledge that, as the grandson says, “you’re like me, you’ll be dying soon.”

A onetime enfant terrible, Ozon has been moving toward more conventional material—even if, as in 5×2, this maturation is in the service of destabilizing conventions. But Time to Leave amounts simply to a semi-thoughtful disease-of-the-week weepie, admirable in its restraint but shying from the terror of the situation. The instructive comparison is with Patrice Chéreau’s Son Frére, a tough-minded account of a young man’s preparation for death, starring a convincingly ashen Bruno Todeschini (Poupaud, even when crouched over the toilet bowl and violently retching, is absurdly beautiful).

Romain is haunted by phantom appearances of his ringleted childhood self. He professes a visceral dislike of kids, but gazes wistfully at playgrounds. These red flags point to a looming tidy reversal, and sure enough, Time to Leave winds up a tiresome affirmation of man’s biological duty to procreate; the position is simplistic verging on obnoxious, especially after 5×2‘s attack on the hetero family model. Still, there’s one saving grace, a little glimpse of the old Ozon: If a child must be redemptively conceived, let it be via a tender, erotic three-way.