Everything Old Is New Again: François Ozon's "5 x 2"
by Nick Pinkerton with responses by Nicolas Rapold and Michael Koresky
[ indieWIRE's weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot. ]
François Ozon's "5x2" starts at the end, on a moment of severance. A fortyish couple, Marion (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) and Gilles (Stéphane Freiss), sit impassive in an avocat's office as the terms of their divorce are explained. From there they go straight to a terse tryst in a hotel room that turns standoffish at once, Gilles asking his ex if she's put on weight after she strips. The scene's chilly and airless; these would-be lovers can't seem to meet eye-to-eye, and Marion's suddenly abashed to be nude before her husband of six years. The clammy sex that follows -- with obsolete wedding bands still worn -- is the expected catastrophe. Marion has second thoughts, but Gilles plows forward with deliberate, agonized thrusts, desperately clenching at a distant, extinct passion.
Overpowered or indifferent, she submits with a bleary-eyed stoicism, then retreats to straighten up in the bathroom, getting one of those intimate, in-between scenes that may be Ozon's greatest strength. On emerging she finds Gilles looking crumpled, and it's immediately obvious that that mean sexual imposition was his last-ditch effort to win just one battle before forfeiting their conjugal war. Marion will survive; Gilles looks broken. He knows that she's the stronger and says as much, but she insists there was never a competition: "I didn't win or lose. It's just over, that's all." But even if nobody's the victor, Gilles still lost, because he thinks he did. He wants to start over. She leaves.
From this intently wretched moment the film moves in reverse chronology through Gilles and Marion's co-existence -- hence "5 x 2": five episodes in two people's lives. Tracking the stream of their final dissolution to its source, the film backtracks through a dinner party that the couple host for Gilles' gay brother and his young, swinging lover; through the birth of the couple's child, from which Gilles is deliberately absent; through Marion's wedding night fling with a bronzed, hawklike American; and finally to the couple's initial encounter on an Italian vacation. Each episode invites the viewer to search for clues, to note the drawn expression on Marion's face when she comes home to her husband and child, to see her effortless strength in the maternity ward in contrast to Gilles' quiet terror at the demands of fatherhood, to find predictions of the inevitable crisis of that first/ final scene throughout their past. But this is a bit of detective work that doesn't call for anything like Holmesian deduction; rather than give his audience the space for guesswork or leave anything to chance, Ozon's film works as an efficient little relationship triptych, stopping off at all the points that most obviously underline the couple's incompatibility. The events in any of the middle episodes as good as scream divorce. There's at least a twitch of melancholic hindsight -- or is it a foresight? -- when we finally see the couple refreshed in the light of their first flirtation, but nothing here approaches the fatalistic complexity with which "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" approached doomed, lopsided romance.
"5 x 2" gets a bit more interesting when you take it as a treatise on the outmoded -- or at least seriously problematic -- nature of the monogamous heterosexual man. It's a reading that Ozon as good as invites when Gilles's brother discusses a lesbian couple who he knows who're having a child together, by way of a spoon, with a gay man's semen; the straight dude has lost all practical function. It's presumptuous to take Freiss's Gilles as representative of all "hetero husbands" (his brother's phrase), but his cagey-if-not-quite-closety frailty is a great study in hangdog male failure -- the actor's work here recalls some of Pialat's most interesting men, revealing deep fissures of helplessness beneath the bluff façade of Gallic masculinity. "He just seems so fragile," says Gilles of his underweight son, feebly tossing in an incubator, but it's obvious by then that the lad takes after his father.
Bruni-Tedeschi is a more thorny case entirely; her long, toothy face has miraculous opacity, bringing something equal parts unknowable and invincible to Marion's femininity. It's obvious from the get-go that Gilles and Marion's marriage will be a wreck, and after 20 minutes anyone can tell that it's the man who'll eventually be the worse off for it. What Bruni-Tedeschi ingeniously manages to get across by her strange, tender, and disappointed manner with Gilles, is that some little part of her is completely, tragically aware that she'll someday have to break her man's heart. It's a performance that towers over Ozon's slight formal exercise. "5 x 2"'s suggestion that every relationship's fate is sealed from the starting line is nothing of note, but the implication of the central performances -- that those involved in the romance may be instinctively aware of that final outcome all along -- is potent stuff.
[ Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor. ]
By Nicolas Rapold
The phrase "bourgeois titillation" may be overused, but it's nonetheless appropriate for Ozon, whose bullying sex fables raid adventuresome techniques for clichéd ends. As other critics have already observed, his is not an auteur cinema but a cinema of auteur-ish gestures, for that light art-house feel with none of the calories. A marketer-filmmaker, he gussies up hoary middle-class marital anxiety into candy-colored scandal for our delectation -- a style epitomized by his infantilizing palette and gloss ("Swimming Pool"), familiar from magazine spreads yet willfully confused with the actually unified melodramatic landscapes of Sirk or Fassbinder.
In keeping with Ozon's practice when wearing his serious-drama hat (as in "Under the Sand"), the more Chabrolian "5x2" has a grainier look, but lead Stéphane Freiss (Gilles, the husband) gives the game away with the painted-on beard, Coppertone/fresh-baked-bread skin tone, and psychological depth of a French Ken doll. For our formal innovation this evening, Ozon serves a lightly braised reverse-chronology-of-divorce-foretold in a spicy segue sauce. First episode: Gilles and Marion (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, thanklessly trying her best) finalize their divorce but share a bed one last time, where, in the universal masculine movie language for eliding aggressive, "frustrated" sex with rape, he manfully takes her roughly from behind. Second episode, first shot: Stéphane spoon-feeding their child. Wow, just goes to show, huh? That you never really know people until, you know, backwards-tell their story?
The violence of this episode, however, only fulfills the puritanical promise of Ozon's early TV-length feature, the fraudulent "See the Sea," which swiftly massacres a mother after an anonymous hook-up in a beachside grove. Marion, too, has forbidden sex in a Freudian thicket, on her wedding night after Gilles falls asleep; in another sex scene engaged by force, she succumbs to a ridiculous Hot American Stud who materializes out of the trees. The reverse chronology obscures that she, too, is ultimately punished, with rape (first episode) and abandonment (third episode: Gilles disappears when she is rushed to the hospital for premature labor, all of which is preceded by a second chapter, a dinner party with a requisite wife-humiliation storytelling scene). In the relentless sexual menace, vapid pretensions, and seaside locales, it's as if Ozon's career is one long scourging penitence for the original sin of Persona's beach-orgy monologue. This is one sermon I think I'll miss.
[ Nicolas Rapold is a Reverse Shot staff writer. ]
By Michael Koresky
For one whose work has always seemed curiously telegraphed, Ozon has perhaps found the perfect approach in his latest film, in which every moment and gesture signal some sort of foregone conclusion. Always wearing his references and French film traditions on his turtleneck-sweater sleeve, Ozon has carved out a nice, comfortable, and wholly safe little niche for himself in the Canal Plus world, exporting an increasingly domesticated oeuvre that has moved from art-house "shockeroos" like the barely pulsating "Criminal Lovers" and "Sitcom" to the more skillful psychological decorum of "Water Drops on Burning Rocks" and "Under the Sand." While he occasionally makes dreadful miscalculations ("8 Women" could barely sustain its direct-address Skittles-flavored experimentation for even its first 10 minutes), Ozon can't be discounted. When he's firing on all pistons, he has a remarkable talent for hitting all the right emotions exactly when they need to be, for making every second count as both a visual exchange between characters as well as between the viewer and image.
His glorious use of Charlotte Rampling in "Under the Sand" and the Chabrol shout-out "Swimming Pool," seemed to have re-energized him, yet it's nice to see him, in "5x2," crawling out from her formidable shadow. With the same exacting detail and boundless compassion that he bestowed upon his sexagenarian muse, he thrusts the expressive faces of Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi (dewy-eyed and tremulous, with a beautifully betraying occasional grin) and Stéphane Freiss (a Gallic Bruce Greenwood, a glowering hard-as-granite soap-stud) up on the large screen for us to take in. What the film lacks in subtlety (does almost every sequence have to center around integral rite-of-passage moments in their lives? Birth of first child, wedding, first meeting...), the actors more than make up for in their innate knowledge of Ozon's preordained text of their slow demise.
So precise are their quiet facial contortions that it's the first scene of the film -- before we even know these characters (but ostensibly when they know each other the most profoundly) -- that makes the strongest impression, the camera creeping ever closer to their crow's feet and clenched jaws as they engage in one final bout of angry, post-divorce sex. After that, it's just a procession of bits that seem cribbed from other European relationship films, and sure enough, Ozon has mentioned that each segment is supposed to ape the style of a different filmmaker, beginning (ending) with Bergman and ending (beginning) with Rohmer. But focusing as it does on so many "big moments," it ends up like a stern-faced French version of that dreadful Brit rom-com greatest-hits package "Love Actually." Yet for every hamfisted moment (Bruni-Tedeschi's frolic with the American soldier in the forest primeval on her wedding night is sure to raise more than a few heckles), the actors' dedication keeps the whole film nicely grounded in the very bittersweet nostalgia it literally bends over backwards to try and attain.
[ Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well as an editor at Interview magazine and frequent contributor of Film Comment. ]