Francois Ozon, Mortal

B. Ruby Rich August 2, 2006

With "Time to Leave," his ninth feature, François Ozon demonstrates yet again just how central a figure he has become to modern European cinema and reminds us, yet again, that he’s one of gay world cinema’s most accomplished writer/directors. His distinctive style smoothly crosses melodrama with naughtiness, plays with genre, and stamps every work with a deeply personal mise-en-scène and look — including, with "Time to Leave," his first use of CinemaScope. Ozon’s taste for encasing gender and sexuality in wildly popular movie forms places him in the distinctive lineage pioneered by Rainer Werner Fasssbinder (to whom he once made a tribute, "Water Drops on Burning Rocks") and Pedro Almodóvar.

Fassbinder brilliantly sent gender down in flames in his sardonic Cold War universe, then followed in kind. Emerging from the shadows of Franco’s reign, Almodóvar brightened the dark Fassbinder universe by adding flamboyance and affection to the themes of gender transgression. He made cinema lovable as well as shocking by the curious directorial strategy of infusing his work with a love of his characters. Now, another generation down the auteurist line, François Ozon, who’s already recognized for his deeply empathic affection for his female characters — to such an extent that the name of George Cukor has been invoked to explain it — has made a film that clarifies two things about the Ozon universe. First, he is still capable of loving his male characters as much as the women who have dominated the screen in his recent trilogy of successes, "Under the Sand," "8 Women," and "Swimming Pool." Second, he is in no way finished with the themes of grief, mortality, and the ineluctable engine of fate that he set in motion with "Under the Sand." In fact, he has said that "Time to Leave" follows "Under the Sand" as the second in a trilogy on death. Don’t forget, though, with all this talk of death, that it could equally be seen as the second in a trilogy on the ocean, the beach, and the eternal cycle of tides bearing eros as well as thanatos.

In town in June to accept the Frameline Award at the San Francisco International LGBT Festival, Ozon was fêted by the French Consulate as well as applauded by the sold-out house of boys at the Castro. He moved easily between the worlds, as surely he has learned to do: graciously accepting the praise of the Consulate to raised glasses of champagne, then gamely taking the stage, with jeans and a shy smile, to field the questions from his admirers. He banters with ease, charms easily, and is clearly well suited to the task of being a filmmaker seducing actors and backers into participating in his serial visions.

Okay, back to basics. What is "Time to Leave" exactly? It’s a film that stars Melvil Poupaud, already celebrated from his work with Rohmer, as Romain, a gorgeous young fashion photographer with an adorable boyfriend, a drug habit, and an international career who abruptly discovers that he is terminally ill with cancer and has little time left to live. Having set the circumstances in motion with his script, Ozon then tracks him with the amplified gaze of a CinemaScope lens for the remainder of his life and examines how he chooses to deal with the news. Suffice it to say that "Terms of Endearment" bears no relation whatsoever to what transpires! His choices are not politically correct. He won’t get a GLAAD award. He clearly doesn’t have an American therapist. Or, in fact, any. He acts and acts out instead.

I have not delivered a spoiler here with the revelation of his diagnosis: the medical news is delivered about five minutes into the film. I mention it here to alert readers precisely because I wasn’t alerted. I first saw the film at the Miami International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in April. Melvil Poupaud was there in person, happy at just having learned that he was being named in the "five actors to watch" column on summer releases by the New York Times (thanks, Karen Durbin). I was impressed with him and excited to be seeing the new Ozon.

As it happened, I was also awaiting the results of my partner’s MRI to find out if the breast cancer we thought was gone had instead metastasized into her spine. (Flash-forward: No, whew, it hadn’t; but I didn’t know that yet.) The film played out like a punch to the gut, even though nothing in it bore any relevance to my life. Hey, it’s a movie. By the end, I was moved more than shaken; and by the time I saw it again in San Francisco, I could firmly return to the world of fiction, the world of Ozon’s sumptuous imagination, and bear witness to Poupaud’s superb rendering of a character in freefall. So I offer up this tip to those of you visited by terminal illness: Yes, it’s fine to see this film, in fact it might be required viewing, but you deserve to know what you’re in for.

Poupaud thrashes about with all the force of a Biblical character, struggling to make brutal sense of his life before it’s over. His decisions are neither predictable nor comfortable. His script fits no Hollywood formula, nor does it participate in the U.S. indie-film formula of neatly wrapped characters explained more by set design or line delivery than by the down-to-the-bone characters the French cinema seems so adept at delivering.

Ozon wrote the role for Poupaud, I learned in Miami. "I met him before he’d written the script, and talked with him, and çasked me a lot of questions about myself, so when I got the script, it already felt familiar." Ozon does that. He invents his characters with particular actors in mind, constructing their traits to merge with their off-screen identities. (Of course, Quentin Tarantino does that, too, but to entirely different ends.)

Poupaud, on the other hand, spoke openly about his sense that he was playing Ozon himself, at least a character imbued with a coincidentally vast set of his characters and concerns: a fashionable gay life in Paris, a difficulty relating openly to friends and family, a successful career. Poupaud thought it was "brave" of Ozon to create such a character, but admitted Ozon hadn’t exactly owned up to it.

Ozon spoke to me about Poupaud, how his erotic presence and his own comfort with exploring himself on screen — the actor’s autobiographical digital film, Poupaud, had just played Cannes — convinced Ozon to cast him.

That’s not to say that Poupaud didn’t have a lot of work to do. Ozon may be a fabulist, but he’s also a realist. And he’s demanding of his actors in a particularly personal and physical way. First, Poupaud had to gain weight to look like a buff, narcissistic high-fashion boy, going to the gym every day and bulking up. What comes up must come down, and in synch with the trajectory of his character’s life, Poupaud then had to start losing. And not just a little. "I lost twelve kilos in two months," he explained, a look of pain just barely visible in his eyes. "Eventually, I wasn’t allowed to eat at all." He could no longer join the rest of the cast for meals, increasing his isolation off-screen as his character was isolating himself more and more on-screen. "By the scene on the beach at the end, I really was hungry and feeling so sick I began to be worried I really was dying."

No such sacrifice was demanded of Jeanne Moreau — apart from the nature of her role. Ozon, over dinner in San Francisco, laughed at his casting. He knew Moreau already through a mutual friend, spoke to her often on the phone, and explained that they’d wanted to work together for some time. She’d already turned him down for "8 Women" because she wouldn’t play Catherine Deneuve’s mother! So before sending her the screenplay he’d just finished, Ozon called to ask Moreau if she’d agree to be in this one. He held his breath. "I hope it’s not for the grandmother," Moreau replied. "Yes, it is, Jeanne," Ozon recalled reassuring her, "but she’s a fantastic grandmother."

It’s true. Her scenes with Poupaud anchor and transform the film. In a way, they even transcend the film. From now on, whenever a tribute to either of them is staged, this scene will be shown. Moreau’s character of Laura, the grandmother, is the one person whom Romain truly loves — and he wants her to know he’s dying, because he feels she can talk about death on account of being so much closer to it than anyone else in his life. Hilariously, she shows him her collection of vitamins, enzymes, and supplements. "I’m going to die in perfect health," she explains. Actually, they’re straight out of Moreau’s own medicine chest. "I saw them at her house," Ozon recalls. Other details of her character are also "borrowed" from life, like her line about sleeping naked. Ozon clearly enjoyed himself with her character.

I can’t help but wonder, though, if Moreau represents something else, too. She does, after all, embody the modern history of French cinema. Moreau had been on screen for a decade already when she became the star of "The Lover," "The 400 Blows," "A Woman Is A Woman," and "Jules and Jim," all in the span of three years. She looks great in "Time to Leave." Her grandson associates her with the end of life, with being close to death, yet she is thriving and he is the one who is dying. Does Ozon think that the nouvelle vague represents the last healthy moment of the French cinema? That his generation, like all of us alive and kicking in 2006, is shadowed by death in an especially acute way? Or that cinema itself is adrift and mortally in danger?

I didn’t get to ask Ozon those questions, but I did get to ask him another one that had been on my mind since Miami. There was another film that "Time to Leave" had reminded me of, another French film that transgressed expectations and dealt with mortality as much as morality. It was 14 years ago that Cyril Collard made "Savage Nights," his one and only feature film (he died at 35, just before accepting a record number of Cesar awards for a debut). Collard wrote the novel on which his screenplay was based and played the central character, a gay man with an AIDS diagnosis who thrashes through the remainder of his life with at least as much destructive force as Ozon’s Romain.

Had Ozon perhaps just transmuted AIDS into cancer in his update, retained a shocking sexual scene, and played out a similar countdown to the final curtain? "No." Ozon rejected the idea completely. "Cyril’s film was all about a character fighting against his death, embracing life, a character who wants to live and struggles to live. In my film, Poupaud’s character withdraws from life, separates himself from other people." He was certain. "It’s the opposite."

But is it really? I’m not so sure. Ozon is now 39, if the Internet Movie Database can be trusted, and 40 is a notoriously tricky age. He’s got a stable relationship with his boyfriend and an amazingly successful career, but no children, and he told me he’s settled into an idea of having or not having them. It’s a decade since his impressive short "A Summer Dress" first blasted him into the international film world. And he’s currently in post-production on his first English-language film, "Angel," based on a novel by the long-forgotten British novelist, Elizabeth Taylor (no, not that one). Intrigued though Ozon’s denial may be, I suspect viewers will have to decide for themselves what, exactly, "Time to Leave" seems to be telling us. And I suspect it’s got a different message in store for each and every one of you. The beach at dusk, for one thing, will never look the same.