Slowly have I warmed up to the work of François Ozon. But after all, it took him a while to get around to giving juicy parts to Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, who instantly raises the temperature of any space she inhabits. The pensiveness that animates her equine face, even in repose; the clear watery depths of her eyes; the frog-in-the-throat Claudia Cardinale hoarseness of her voice, always near the breaking point; the closeness of her smile to a grimace; the contiguousness, even overlappingness, of her state of happiness and her state of sadness — all this surrounds her in an air of unfabricated experience and wisdom. Alas, she has only a supporting part in Ozon's new Time to Leave, although the film as a whole carries on in the vein of his last, his most mature, his best-to-date, 5x2, the reverse-chronology account of marital disintegration in which Bruni-Tedeschi had the female lead.
That vein — stopping short of ninety minutes in both instances — evades the campy artifice of his 8 Women and his Water Drops on Burning Rocks, as well as the catty ambiguity of his Swimming Pool and his Under the Sand. It perhaps, in its emotional directness and emotional intensity, verges on the sentimental; and yet, just as that seemed unobjectionable in a film about the end of a relationship, it again seems so in a film about the end of a life: that of a self-absorbed thirty-one-year-old homo- sexual fashion photographer, every bit as gorgeous as his models, who blanks out in the midst of a humdrum photo shoot, learns he has an inoperable cancer (emphatically not AIDS, not a lifestyle thing, not a political thing), and chooses to go to his grave without a struggle, sooner rather than later.
Unresolved personal issues — the sponging live-in lover, the mother who obstinately continues to look to him for grandchildren, the rejected divorced sister and the two unembraced children of her own — now become irresolvable, to be dealt with in untidy ways, as best as he's able. Hard for him though this is, the unfolding narrative remains free-flowing, even when diverted into flashbacks, smooth as a train of thought, unencumbered by heavy drama or profound epiphany. A few moving, movie-ish moments fight through the messiness: the final goodbye to his beloved grandmother, the only family member who, dying herself, has been entrusted with his bad news; the clandestine snapshots of his sister and her children in a public park, in violation of his strict aesthetic rule against family portraits; the solitary trip to the beach for a last ice cream, a last swim, a last sunset.
Ozon's camerawork — cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie's camera- work — is steady and controlled, the shots chosen with care and economy, as if to put a value on vision, a price on perception. And the color palette lays out a bright, rich, wide-screen world that seems a shame to leave. Because the film is French and au courant, a sex scene will not astonish you with a visible hard-on (you would not be apt to see this from Ashton Kutcher), and when the protagonist needs to throw up, he will take the long way around to the side of the toilet bowl so that you will have a clear view of the vomitus through the open bathroom door. Going too far, of course, is always one of the dangers of emotional directness. Taking a shortcut is another: hence Arvo P...rt for background music, undeniably affecting.
The principal role is held by Melvil Poupaud (seen over here in Eric Rohmer's A Summer's Tale, James Ivory's Le Divorce, et al.), and held commandingly, with the delicate, fragile, vulnerable beauty, the lean, starved, inverted-triangle face, of a young Gérard Philipe. (But then, Gérard Philipe never got old, never got more than a few years older than the hero here.) The bearded, creased-leather, eyebaggy face of Daniel Duval, as the restrained and resigned father, is a beautiful thing in a different way. And the illustrious Jeanne Moreau, as the grandmother, distressingly displays the sinking, puckery, pockety face of an aged Bette Davis, an actress to whom she was often likened in her prime, too. Bruni-Tedeschi comes into it as a pit-stop waitress on the road to Granny's house, a woman with a sterile husband, a ticking biological clock, and an eye out for the good bones of a potential sperm donor — if, that is, both men would be agreeable. This subplot has not been written to minimize the ridiculousness of the situation — he dislikes children, he's gay, he's dying, not to mention he's a total stranger -- and the out-and-out funniness of the arranged three-way impregnation rite is probably, possibly, intentional. It would be the film's weakest strand, however, were it not for the participation of Bruni-Tedeschi. Against all odds, she gives it strength.
UCSD must be back in session, because "Midnight Madness" is back at Landmark's La Jolla Village, a stone's throw away, on Saturday nights from September 16 through November 18. I don't know what it would take to get me out to see a movie at that hour, but Tron (September 23) got me at least to raise an eyebrow. That movie could stand another look, if the eyelids could stay up. The moviegoer who could be lured out by a colorized Plan 9 from Outer Space (October 7), or in other words the film Ed Wood would have made if Ed Wood were not Ed Wood, would have to be a hardy soul indeed. Either that, or a big-time sucker.