Death in the Ozon layer

spiked-film: Unlike other films, François Ozon’s Le Temps Qui Reste manages to do ‘dying with dignity’ well.

Graham Barnfield

Topics Culture

Time to Leave (Le Temps Qui Reste), directed by François Ozon, on general release in the UK in May 2006.

Something about the plot synopsis of Time to Leave (Le Temps Qui Reste) put me right off. On the eve of its London Film Festival press screening, the title sat in my diary like a tombstone. Could I face an early morning watching a(nother) movie where the protagonist ‘has terminal cancer, which has developed to such an extent, even chemotherapy (probably) won’t stop it’? (1)

Multiple TV movies of the week have trod this grim path: just flick on the Hallmark Channel, you digital and cable viewers. So far, so familiar. In all probability the movie would insult my intelligence with a big dose of Hollywood cancer, leaving the stars gorgeous, only paler. A grim mood descended and my usual levity seemed to resign itself to its own little care hospice, terminally ill.

Fortunately, my mood improved when I recalled that this wasn’t any old tale of gloom and doom: it was the new François Ozon movie. The disturbingly evergreen Ozon sits atop an unbroken run of near-annual critical triumphs, all beautifully shot and usually thought-provoking. Early shorts like Une robe d’été (1996) made it clear that he was a talent to be reckoned with. This was confirmed by the crazed Sitcom (1998), where the static set’s doorbell rang to signal sexual experimentation within an extended family, all encouraged by an omnipresent pet rat. The emphasis on transgressive sexuality in Ozon’s films meant he became associated with the ‘New Queer cinema’ of the 1990s, a gallic Gregg Araki.

As his growing body of international fans will testify, Ozon – in a film industry dominated by Hollywood – is an auteur who creates those moments when European cinema can seem like a parallel universe. With the hard work of independent filmmaking behind him, the distinctive Ozon ouvere took shape. This was in a millieu part-paid for by Western European funding arrangements, where state film subsidies feed those medium budget movies that sit badly in US-UK multiplexes.

Admittedly some of Ozon’s works have had the look of domestic dramas, albeit beautifully shot. At least they were getting made and making interesting points; across La Manche we became obsessed with cockney wideboys at around the same time (2).

Over time, the transgressive sexuality of New Queer cinema began to seem industry standard, to the point where one might expect to see kitemarks shaved into actors’ pubic hair. Some commentators complained that explicit sex had become a device for making extreme cinema into a genre in its own right (3). Smoking a post-coital gitane while delivering an anti-American rant and a random act of violence became the norm. But not for an Ozon movie.

At times it appeared that he was less self-assured when moving away from his roots. Thus 5×2 (2004) was lauded, but this backwards-running portrayal of middle-class marital break-up relied heavily on stereotypes to deliver its observations (4). Yet despite misfiring occassionally, Ozon can still coach great performances out of his casts. Some of this screen excellence he owes to his intellectual roots in the 1950s Hollywood melodrama, shared with such contemporary screen queens as Todd Haynes of Far From Heaven fame. Taken together, this meant that 8 Women (2002) and the subtly menacing Swimming Pool (2003) all hit the spot with critics and audiences alike.

Being part of New Queer cinema almost inevitably means doing an AIDS movie, usually as a sophomore project. Araki and Haynes both went down that route with The Living End (1992) and Poison (1991) respectively. Time to Leave is not that film; indeed Ozon, despite HIV’s attrition rate among his friends and acquaintances, says he’ll take his time before shooting such a movie. Instead, and in consultation with oncologists, Ozon set out to tell the tale of coping with the Big C.

Throughout Time to Leave it becomes obvious to Romain (the excellent Melvil Poupaud) that his days are numbered. As in life, the tumour specialist leaves the gorgeous thirtysomething photographer with a shred of hope for recovery, but it’s also obvious that this is a mere formality. Our protagonist has to figure out how to extract himself from a charmed life in public and put his affairs in order, simultaneously setting straight a series of fouled-up personal relationships. (All amid frequent scenes of edgy, muscular sex, of course.)

Perhaps this was not Ozon’s intention at the onset of pre-production, but the notion of ‘dying with dignity’ is central to his new movie. If this concept raises a few hackles, then you are no doubt aware of its recent conversion into the slogan of euthanasia enthusiasts. At times, such organisations seem to present suicide as a lifestyle choice. While mock rappers Goldie Lookin’ Chain can mock miserable rock stars with songs like ‘Self Suicide’, everyone else is expected to treat such fatal choices as above criticism. Who could ignore someone’s dying wishes, after all? For some lobbyists, the sensible conduct of hospital patients faced with an agonising final few hours is to be elevated into a matter of public policy. As Kevin Yuill has argued on spiked, such sentiments condone and normalise anti-human fatalism. Mainstream movies like Alejandro Amenábar’s The Sea Inside (2004) have also jumped on this bandwagon, reinforcing the dumb message that suicide is painless.

Ozon is to be commended for refusing, South Park-style, to treat the cinema as the fount of all wisdom. His characters – especially Romain – face difficult decisions and do the best they can, acting bitter and snapping back from time to time, often at inappropriate moments. Little in his last will and testament seems perfect or even cruelty-free, but Romain makes the hard choices as he makes his peace with the world. Needless to say, there’s no magic bullet to cure the cancer and it’s tragic to watch a once-vibrant person’s demise. What could have been a despondent drama francais of the sort caricatured on The Fast Show – its seriousness begging some wag to shout out ‘anyone fancy a pint?’ – is instead a downbeat yet humanistic account of the thing that unites us all, but is tragic when it comes too soon.

Graham Barnfield blogs at the Loneliest Jukebox and teaches at the University of East London.

(1) Artificial Eye press release, 2005

(2) See Ali Gray, Living on Location, Rising East 3. January 2006

(3) Kevin Maher, ‘Oeuvre the top’, Times T2, 28 July 2005, p.20.; see also From One Extreme to Another, by Graham Barnfield
(4) See Philip Cunliffe’s Culture Wars review

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