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Friday, April 28, 2006
Dealing with the knowledge of everything
By KAORI SHOJI
While some films takes us out of ourselves, others make it their mission to hold a mirror up to the viewer and challenge us to see something unique and extraordinary in that too-familiar reflection.
In this sense, filmmaker Francois Ozon is head and shoulders above his contemporaries: His stories have mostly been entrenched in public-domain issues: "Under the Sand" dealt with bereavement; "The Swimming Pool" was about aging/menopause; "5 x 2" took in marriage/divorce; and Ozon's latest is "Le Temps qui reste (Time to Leave)" and it's arguably his finest work to date, though by this time next year this brilliant and prolific filmmaker is likely to dazzle us all over again.
"Le Temps" is an account of a young man diagnosed with cancer who is approaching death, and it's probably the most honest and autobiographical of Ozon's films, inviting speculation that it could be similar to Mozart's "Requiem," the funeral symphony written just before the composer's mysterious demise. Still, whether or not "Le Temps" is an accurate self-portrait becomes unimportant since from the very first scenes the film will have you teetering from its impact on the senses, followed by an eagerness to take in every intricate detail of the last months in the life of the young protagonist, Romain (played by the boyish, lanky Merville Poupaud), from the wrinkled sheets on the bed he shares with his lover to the solitary spaghetti dinners slurped with a plastic fork. Romain stylizes his imminent demise to his own specifications, to the extent that we are inclined to think Ozon is atypically stooping to make a statement about how the modern societal system encroaches on (what should be) life's most private experience.
Up to this decision, Romain had led a very public and glamorous life; at 31 he was one of Paris' most celebrated fashion photographers. One morning he has a fainting spell and goes to the doctor, to be told that his insides are lacerated with cancer cells and he has only a couple more months to live.
"You're young," the doctor tells him. "You can fight this." He suggests chemotherapy, but Romain rejects this, and from here concentrates his efforts on preparing for death. He begins by going over to his parents' for dinner and spending time with the family. He then kicks his lover out (the only reason he gives is "I don't want you around anymore"), but later pulls strings to get his ex a good job. He reconciles with his sister with whom relations had always been rocky. He quits his job. And all this time, he tells no one of his condition, with the exception of his aging grandmother (an absolutely wonderful Jeanne Moreau) on whom he pays a visit: "We have something in common, you and I. We're both going to die soon."
The scene between the pair is an exquisite sequel, and astonishing when one considers that Ozon is just 38. He already seems to grasp most of the secrets and all of the answers about love, sex and maturity. When grandmother is getting ready for bed, Romain comes in and asks to sleep with her. "But I always go to sleep naked," she tells him. "That's OK, I won't look," he responds.
When he leaves the next morning he tells her that she is beautiful, and if he were older, "I would have wanted to marry you." Their parting is charged with a tender eroticism, as if they are the closest of couples.
Romain seems to have the gift of sexuality installed in his bloodstream; whomever he happens to be with, be it his father, his sister, his agent -- they will somehow seem like his lover. Later, he tells his doctor (who supplies him with painkillers) how he has dreams of having sex with everyone he knows, and the staid medico winces and flushes as if he has just been seduced. This isn't to say that throughout the story Romain remains above-it-all -- alone at night he repeatedly bangs his head against the wall for it seems there's no other way to alleviate the crushing fear and despair.
Poupaud, who has built his career on playing merciless, pretty-boy roles, comes into his own as Romain, who combines an incredible strength of will with a touching, almost translucent vulnerability. Romain, who had been surrounded by an adoring entourage is alone in the end, having shed most of his earthly possessions, his hair and his weight. One of his last acts is to throw his ringing cell phone into the trash, but the gesture speaks more of liberation and purgation than tragedy or loneliness. There's no disputing that life is beautiful, but according to Ozon so, too, is death.