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'Time to Leave' doesn't make the most of melodrama

``Time to Leave" is an unintended litmus test for lovers of foreign films. The brief, oblique tale of a young Frenchman told he has three months to live, it does absolutely nothing that previous movies dealing with this subject haven't done, from Bette Davis in ``Dark Victory" through Meryl Streep in ``One True Thing" to Queen Latifah in ``Last Holiday."

It has subtitles, though, and the main character's gay, and the writer/director is François Ozon, who has delivered dependably ambiguous art-house hits in ``Swimming Pool," ``8 Women," and ``Under the Sand." So it's your call: Does ``Time to Leave" work because it strives for chic Gallic discretion? Or does it fail because it doesn't have the courage of its own built-in mawkishness?

In the grand tradition of terminal-disease movies, Romain (Melvil Poupaud) starts out a thoroughly unlikable cuss. A 31-year-old Parisian fashion photographer, he's vain, self-absorbed, short-tempered. He doesn't like children, either, and takes out his bile on his uncomprehending sister Sophie (Louise-Anne Hippeau), who has had the temerity to breed. ``I'm not a nice person," Romain confesses at one point, so points for self-knowledge at least.

Wouldn't it be interesting if one of these dying swans stayed a jerk all the way through the movie? No such luck here. Upon being told he has inoperable cancer, Romain begins a slow ascension to humanity, passing through the expected Kübler-Rossian stages along the way. Refusing to tell anyone he's dying, he confesses he has treated his young lover (Christian Sengewald) like dirt and sends the boy packing. He suffers long nights of the soul. There is screaming, and banging of heads on doors. He starts to like kids.

The best sequence: Romain visits his aging grandmother, played by French film legend Jeanne Moreau (``Jules and Jim"). He clearly gets his selfishness gene from her, and the sight of these two reprobates mulling over the ashes of their spoiled, spent lives is eerily affecting. ``They called it selfish," growls Grandmère, ``but it was a survival instinct." As you look at the magnificent ruin of Moreau's beauty, pierced by those pitiless black eyes, you're uncertain how much she's acting.

The silliest plot turn: Romain meets a diner waitress (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) who abruptly tells him her husband (Walter Pagano) is sterile and that they want him to father their baby. (Asked if his illness is hereditary, Romain answers, ``No, it's cancer," and the couple shrug and say, ``OK, fine." I've got old kitchen strainers that screen better than these two.)

To ask an audience to buy this sort of thing, you need to be unashamed of melodrama -- the only way to do it is with all stops out. The master chefs of old Hollywood knew this. Ozon is a filmmaker of specialized moods, and he can tease out subtleties of mourning or lust that other directors can't get near. Ironically, that finesse is what trips him up in ``Time to Leave." The more Romain commits to life, the less Ozon seems to commit to the movie.

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