François Ozon takes a backwards look at relationships.

By Max Leonard

Pale and drawn out, Parisian couple Gilles (Stéphane Freiss) and Marion (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) listen to a lawyer pronounce their divorce decree: the words resonate, hanging in the air, the tone is funereal.  Later, they go back to his hotel room and he subjects her to forced sex that’s difficult to watch. Oddly, this is where François Ozon’s moving study of the breakdown in their relationship begins: it follows the arc backwards in time, from unpleasant divorce to first attraction on a sunny beach in Italy.

Including start (end) and end (start), the film concentrates on five scenes from the lives of the two leads (hence the title). Unlike Memento, which set the template for films that narrate in counter-chronological order, 5x2 doesn’t set out to intrigue – there’s no mystery to solve – but to provide a detailed observation of a couple and all the pressures of modern life. After the separation we see dinner with friends and touching domestic scenes with their young son, though the cracks are already beginning to show.  Onwards and backwards, Gilles misses the premature birth of his son and is unable to cope with supporting his exhausted, emotional wife in the aftermath. Ozon then takes us to happier times, a vivid picture of life when things weren’t always so difficult. Their white wedding is the ideal backdrop for their radiant happiness, though when Gilles falls asleep at the critical moment it leads to a horribly clichéd episode involving an American beefcake, a shared cigarette and moonlight over water. And though the closing section showing Gilles bumping into newly single Marion while on holiday is not short of walking-into-the-sunset shots, this wedding night transgression is the only false note in the film,

Both characters have their failings, but Ozon doesn’t play the blame game or leave easy answers for the viewer. It is careful, too, not recycle the old excuse of ‘circumstances’ forcing them apart; nor is the separation due to outside causes exploding into their lives – like in that other recent backwards-film, Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible. There’s no decisive moment to be seen, the viewer never really knows what is the root of their unhappiness: simply that during the quirky Italian love songs that separate the five vignettes there’s a deterioration that feels somehow existential. Except thanks to the reverse chronology conceit – which subverts the notion of looking for a root cause to their troubles – it’s a cheering experience: things get better. The leads do a fantastic job of appearing to become youthful as the film goes on: Freiss turns from a menacing, physical presence into a pleasant, playful younger version of the same man; Bruni-Tedeschi becomes svelte and carefree as the load lifts from her shoulders. Both actors have had solid but unspectacular film and TV careers until now; both we will hopefully being seeing much more of in the future. Backed up by a distinguished supporting cast, the acting is first class.

The film’s a cheering experience, too, because the it achieves the difficult feat of making the viewer feel that the young couple flirting on the Italian beach have a bright future ahead of them. Reputedly, Harvey Weinstein was concerned when watching Pulp Fiction that one main character, Vince, died before the end: he feared this would alienate the audience. His fears were allayed, however, when Vince reappears, ‘still alive’, in the final scene – as long as he’s there at the end, the audience will go home happy. 5x2 works on a similar principle, and is a stylish, perceptive film about modern relationships. The substance of the tale is light-to-ephemeral, but the telling adds its own weight, and its perverse optimum is infectious.
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