Anyone who’s seen a fair number of French films knows what la plage means: the beach. The seaside vacation is a pillar of Gallic civilization, and French directors per capita set more movies at the shore than do filmmakers of any other nationality. The beach is a place for idle moments and casual romance; it’s only natural that Eric Rohmer, the master of the philosophical makeout flick, so often returns there. But director François Ozon takes a darker view of beaches and swimming pools; his new Time to Leave is not his first effort to mix the fragrances of sea spray and death. That’s also the formula for Laurent Cantet’s Heading South, but then the film is set not in placid Normandy but in Baby Doc Duvalier’s Haiti.

Cantet’s two previous films, the admirable Human Resources and the extraordinary Time Out, were informed by documentary and concerned with the unglamorous world of work. So is Heading South, although the workplace and the product are quite different this time. In late-’70s Haiti, middle-aged women frequent a beachfront hotel known for attracting beautiful young black men. Valium-popping Savannah, Ga., refugee Brenda (Karen Young), who’s introduced being met by hotel proprietor Albert (Lys Ambroise) at the airport, has visited once before. Still married then, she had a sexual awakening with teenage Legba (Ménothy Cesar). On her second trip, she discovers that Legba is now a much more accomplished gigolo. She also finds that his time is monopolized by Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), an imperious and professedly amoral Wellesley French-literature professor who spends all of every summer at the hotel. (Her job explains why Ellen speaks French; it’s unclear why Brenda does.)

Coolly assured, Ellen takes command of the servants and her fellow guests, who also include pudgy Montrealer Sue (Louise Portal). Yet Brenda manages to get Legba’s attention, and Ellen shows signs of jealousy while trying to appear too sophisticated for such emotions. The tussle between the two women is not the principal threat to Legba, however. The young man gets around, and he’s made an enemy among Baby Doc’s thugs. Brenda’s attempts to protect him from indignities—such as Albert’s ban on locals’ eating in the hotel restaurant—ultimately prove to have little effect on his fate.

Although it was adapted by Cantet and co-writer Robin Campillo from three short stories by Dany Laferrière, Heading South includes several documentary-like sequences. The most chilling of these are the opening scene, in which Albert is approached by a woman trying to save her teenage daughter from likely sexual enslavement, and a monologue in which Albert addresses the camera directly, revealing his venomous true feelings for the North Americans he serves. The three soliloquies, delivered by Brenda, Ellen, and Sue, are less convincing. This may be because Brenda and Ellen speak in English, whose nuances Cantet doesn’t quite get. Their language is a bit unnatural, and their comments overly literary—not at all what a genuine documentary interview would have yielded.(Tellingly, Legba doesn’t have a monologue; he’s the merchandise, not the consumer.)

Heading South is more persuasive when its characters are hiding their deeper emotions, pretending to be having “fun” as they engage in a desperate struggle against loneliness or, in Legba’s case, poverty. Each battle is unwinnable, but with very different consequences for the loser.

Heading South takes a little too long to arrive at a climax that is a little too foreseeable. Still, it understands the Third World–tourist dynamic, and neatly delineates the way two different kinds of people can live different kinds of existence in the same place. (“Tourists never die” is a cop’s simple summation.) The occasional unworkable dialogue aside, Rampling and Young are altogether convincing, and Cesar both personifies and exemplifies Legba’s effortless charm. It’s easy to see why Ellen and Brenda would be drawn to him, even to the point of ignoring a social system that will inevitably destroy their fantasies—and much more as well.

Of all the people who claim that François Ozon is the new Rainer Werner Fassbinder, none is more befuddled by the connection than Ozon himself. As was Fassbinder, Ozon is a gay European art-film director who’s inspired by Douglas Sirk’s deeply ambivalent ’50s melodramas. But where Fassbinder moved from provocation to provocation, Ozon rarely causes a stir, no matter how hard he tries. His new Time to Leave, like so many of its predecessors, packs lots of attitude but makes very little impact.

In the manner of Fassbinder and another of his successors, Pedro Almodóvar, Ozon often devises scenarios for female protagonists but sometimes takes a gay man as his central character. Time to Leave’s story centers on Romain (Melvil Poupaud), a successful Paris fashion photographer who’s about to fly to Japan when his doctor gives him good reason to cancel the trip: Romain has a malignant brain tumor, and his odds of survival are less than 5 percent.

Romain decides not to seek treatment or, for that matter, sympathy. He cruelly expels boyish boyfriend Sasha (Christian Sengewald) and declines to repair his tattered connections to his parents and family. (He’s particularly hostile to his sister, apparently because she’s damaged his memories of their happy childhood by having children of her own.) The only person he can bring himself to tell of his imminent death is his grandmother, a feisty old broad who is both played by and, seemingly, inspired by Jeanne Moreau. She lives near the ocean, and Romain is drawn to the beach as his hours tick away. In fact, it is on his way to and from the seashore that Romain encounters the person who draws him back—psychically, not physically—to life. She’s a roadside-cafe waitress (played by Valéria Bruni-Tedeschi, who starred in Ozon’s previous film, 5 X 2) who asks him to father her child, a preposterous development that leads to an even more outlandish event.

In its matter-of-fact depiction of drugs and unapologetic (if not explicit) sexuality, Time to Leave is a modern film. It also takes a relaxed, un-Hollywood approach to narrative, giving equal weight to dramatic upheavals and casual epiphanies. Yet Sirk’s inspiration is evident, and some of the film’s touches are downright old-fashioned. As soon as Romain learns of his likely death, he begins to be shadowed by a curly-headed tyke—himself as a boy. Ozon chose the melancholy minimalism of composer Arvo Pärt to accompany the film’s brooding moments, but the presence of this kid—even when he’s urinating in the holy water—is as sentimental as the most flowery of massed-violin flourishes.

Time to Leave was likely conceived as a complement to Ozon’s best feature, Under the Sand, in which a woman—played by Charlotte Rampling—attempts to deny her husband’s demise. But whereas that film portrayed life after someone else’s death as an impenetrable mystery, this one makes the prelude to doom look remarkably banal and largely painless. Romain ticks off the final preparations as if they’re a routine set of errands, even if he does have to rely on a waitress’ unexpected request to provide a connection to posterity that Fassbinder, for one, would surely have denied. After proposing the ocean as a symbol of oblivion, Ozon makes a sudden shift to present it as the most bourgeois of possible images: the womb.CP