Time to Leave: Interview with Jeanne Moreau as Grandmother of Young Gay Man

In Francois Ozon’s new film, Time to Leave, the great French actress Jeanne Moreau plays the sensitive, loving grandmother of a young gay man diagnosd with terminal cancer.

Ozon on Moreau

I always dreamed of doing a film with Jeanne Moreau, and she’s the French actress missing from my film “8 Women,” though her presence is felt in Emmanuelle Bart’s maid costume, a reference to Luis Bunuel’s “Diary of a Chambermaid,” in which Moreau played the lead.
Jeanne is another actor who is very close to her directors. Like the other actors, she was involved early on, during the preparation stages. She likes to enter the rhythm of a film as it is being created. She is a very generous actor and needs to be enormously involved. I think she has a fascination with directing, and a great deal of respect for it. She really fleshed out her character, she gave her a past. She’d give me her opinions and ideas, she’d tell me about books she loved. Working with her was a wonderful experience. The affection and complicity we had is reflected in the film, in the relationship between Romain and his grandmother.

Involvement in Film

Jeanne Moreau: I always see Franois’ films right when they come out, and a mutual friend introduced us, Jean-Claude Moireau, who is Franois’ stills photographer and also wrote my biography. Franois and I would occasionally talk on the phone, and I felt like I knew him, I felt like he was a little brother. He felt the same thing. He’d say, “One day, we must do a film together.” Then one day, he called me about “Time to Leave.” He told me what the film’s theme was and I said, “I hope it’s not the role of a grandmother.” “Yes, it is.” “Well, all right, but only for you.”

The screenplay wasn’t all that important to me, because to my mind Franois is an exceptional person and an exceptional director, the two go hand in hand. He is a realisateur, (director) not a metteur-en-scene (filmmaker).

What’s the distinction

JM: A metteur-en-scne is someone who puts things in place, organizes. A ralisateur is someone who turns his imagination into something real. This film is a work of fiction, but all fiction becomes autobiographical when the author has true talent. When Czanne says, “This is my apple”, you’d better believe it’s Czanne’s apple.

Confessional film

JM: Like all great films, “Time to Leave” is a confession. As I was watching it, sometimes Franois’ face would appear like magic over Melvil’s when he was in extreme close-up. It’s a fantastic thing to take the risk of getting so close to your desire, expressing your obsession so absolutely.

I think Franois is abandoning himself more in this film than he has in previous films. To me, Time to Leave is a series of confessions about family relationships, the refusal to compromise, the refusal to bend to conventional ideas about how we can prevent our loved ones from suffering.

In order to give love and receive love, you have to be in touch with pain, you have to be capable of provoking it and feeling it. When Romain leaves his grandmother, who represents love to him, it’s like he’s running away from their closeness.

Encounter with couple at truck stop

JM: It’s a chance encounter that can happen anywhere, when you’re minding your business, drinking your coffee. It’s making a baby without love, without commitment. It’s giving without love. The scene where Romain and the couple part ways after the signing of the will is beautiful. For me, the film is about refusing to be surrounded by others while you’re negotiating the ultimate pain. To go out with the setting sun on an empty beach is to truly embrace your solitude. This has been present in Franois’ previous work, but it is particularly powerful in this film.

Ambience on the set

JM: I was not the least bit surprised by how precise and demanding Franois is. At the same time, he gives you a great deal of freedom. It is impossible not to be generous with someone like him. You can’t say after two takes, “No, that’s enough now, I’m done.” Franois never hesitates to do another take if he hasn’t gotten what he wants from you, or if you haven’t yet given him that unexpected something that will inspire him to take the scene further. You must be prepared to enter Franois’ universe. But going there is a wonderful experience that leaves an indelible mark.

Getting into character

JM: I didn’t prepare anything. As a matter of principle, I always come to a film like a blank slate; I don’t learn my lines in advance. With this approach, I feel free, and clean. I gradually work myself into frenzy, as the shoot approaches, while we’re choosing the costumes or working with the make-up artist.

I’m not so much interested in my character as the film itself. Many people associate stage fright with a fear of looking ridiculous, making a bad impression. For me, it’s like a kind of fever. When I’m acting, I’m two beings. There’s the one monitoring the distance between me and the camera, making sure I hit my marks. And then there is the one driven by this inner fire, this delicious fear. It’s this subconscious part of me that knows just how far to go, and then the other one says, “But is the fire really hot enough” And suddenly, everything bursts into flames.

Saying goodbye

JM: During the scene where Romain says goodbye to Laura, I remember saying to Franois, “No, I can’t do it.” And very calmly, he said to me, “Yes, you can. We’ll do it again.” And he was right.

There are certain times when the emotion needs to come from the truest possible place, not be provoked by memories or by a director who is dragging you through the mud, screaming in front of the crew that your son has died or some bullshit like that. As soon as Franois set up the camera, it felt right. It all made sense: I could see where he wanted to go, what he wanted to see.

Working with Melvil Poupaud

JM: He’s shy, but he knew that we had something to share, that I wasn’t there to judge him or keep him at arm’s length. I can be intimidating, but not within the intimate confines of a film shoot.

Going to new places

JM: Going to new places I have not been before has always been my reason to live. I don’t like going where I’ve already been. I don’t want to waste my time with what I already know. The situation that Laura finds herself in was unknown to me. I’ve never had anyone who knew they were going to die come and confide in me like that. I’ve seen people die very young; I’ve seen people get killed, but never this.

Bringing a role to life in few scenes

JM: Characters who are on screen from start to finish are not necessarily the ones who have the greatest impact. It’s the same way in life. I can meet someone briefly in a caf or at the airport and they’ll stick in my mind, whereas some others with whom I’ve spent a great deal of time don’t even leave a trace.

To give a character life in a short space of time, it helps if you reach the screen with a past. Even when I was young, I had the ability to do this. So now that time has actually passed. My face has changed with the years and has enough history in it to give audiences something to work with.

Sensuous grandmother

JM: Franois knew I slept naked. I had told him I need to be nude in order to sleep, like a baby. I suppose that’s where he got the idea. Franois used a few things he heard me say when we would get together. The vitamins, for example. He had noticed them in my kitchen and asked me what they were.

Confiding in a grandma

JM: When I asked Romain why he chose to confide in me, he says: “Because you’re like me, you’ll be dying soon.” Laura takes it in, and then this bond between them makes her smile. The fact that she says to him, “Tonight, I’d like to slip away with you,” reveals that she is quite familiar with the idea of death; she’s comfortable with it, though she’s not encouraging it. All those vitamins aren’t to keep death at bay; they’re to keep deterioration at bay. She says it herself: “I want to die in perfect health.”

Meaning of death

JM: I’m not sure that Romain dies in the end. It’s symbolic. For me, knowing how to die is knowing how to live. What is death anyway It’s the outcome of life. We live in a time where we want to keep the two separate: you’re alive one minute and then, you’re dead! But Romain is not dead: he’s dissolving, and I say this without any religious sentiment whatsoever. It’s just as idiotic to say there is no life after death as it is to say there is one. Death is an absolute mystery. We are all vulnerable to it, it’s what makes life interesting and suspenseful.

Life is extremely difficult. People are always talking about happiness, but happiness – in French “bonheur”, like “bonne heure” (literally the “good hour”) – boils down to chance. What matters are the joys – knowing how to feel cold, heat, shadows, light. Each person will interpret “Time to Leave” in their own way. Some will be frightened, some will reject it and others will discover things they never thought about before. There is a real calmness to it, a few tears, but no sentimentality.