First the denial, second the anguish and self loathing, and finally the bid for redemption. These are the stages that a young bisexual man, Romain (played by Melvin Poupaud), endures after he learns that he’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
It’s potentially grim subject matter. Could it be prey to Hollywood mawkishness or so unflinchingly tough that it turns out too bleak to watch? Thankfully this pared-down melodrama has enough moments of keen observation and emotional truth to keep us rooted for all its skilfully constructed 85 minutes.
The story is deceptively simple, but its leanness is at the service of revealing a simple and profound dilemma – how should one act when faced with imminent death?
The narrative begins almost immediately when a successful young fashion photographer sees a doctor because of a dizzy spell. The news is bad. Romain derives some ironic satisfaction that he hasn’t contracted Aids, but then learns that he’s been diagnosed with cancer. He refuses chemotherapy. He feels luck will not be on his side, because the doctor’s prognosis is that he has a 5 percent chance of survival.
Romain absorbs the reality, and it’s from here that his complex emotional journey begins. He acts out his issues by taking the first opportunity to unnecessarily insult his sister at the dinner table, shocking his parents. In the car back home he makes the first of his goodbyes, withholding the truth from his father but taking the time to rake over emotional sores and then to suddenly cleave to him for dear life, leaving his father wary and slightly baffled.
The rest of Romain’s moral choices similarly take us unawares. Romain dumps his young male lover after a bout of passionate sex. What are the real reasons for his intemperate behaviour? Is he trying to protect his lover from sharing a tragic, short-lived relationship? Or is he acting selfishly, denying his lover the role of carer, the role of the loving partner?
Romain recognises his cruelty – he refuses to tell his family about his cancer – but won’t this make them totally unprepared for his inevitable death? The scenes with his grandmother, played by Jeanne Moreau, encapsulate the film’s candour and humanity.
He seeks her out for the simple and morbid reason that as an old woman she’s closer to death and so he feels some common bond – but these scenes are uncommonly poignant. In a lesser filmmaker’s hands these scenes would appear clunky, but not here.
Unlike, say, Savage Nights, the 1992 film about a dying Aids victim, our hero doesn’t intend to burn like a roman candle. There’s something more emotionally realistic and subtle here. Romain rages against the dying of the light, sporadically convulsed and overcome with self-pity. In these heartfelt scenes we feel his pain and loneliness. He snaps pictures of those people who mean the most to him, but we never see the pictures – they are of personal symbolic importance and not adornment for the film’s style.
Romain may recognise that he’s an arrogant bastard, but when a chance to leave something behind is offered to him the film takes an unexpected and intriguing twist.
Time to Leave is rare in the way that it attempts to illustrate the inner turmoil of a young man, a sort of “masculinity under pressure” movie, in which the transparent expression of emotion is given its narrative due.
The style is minimal and the narrative strands economical. Will Romain eventually have the inner strength to connect with his humanity, recognise his inextricable links with his community of friends and relatives? See the film – it’s worth finding out the answer.
A quietly evocative film
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