The key theme to writer-director Francois Ozon's 5X2 (Five Times Two) emerges in a metaphor. A thirtysomething French couple meets by accident at an Italian seaside resort. They know each other only casually from work, but they have a meal and some drinks. They are clearly mutually attracted. The next day they see each other on the beach, where the woman warns that powerful undercurrents have made swimming dangerous. The surprised young man replies that the water looks so peaceful. They talk awhile, and then, neglectful of the danger, they go swimming, anyway. Thus begins a relationship we already know will not end happily. Ozon's point is that nascent romantic relationships are fraught with undetectable risks, that individual personalities reveal themselves only slowly over time, and that sometimes, though appearances would suggest otherwise, people just aren't right for each other. Invoking Peggy Lee, I found myself thinking, is that all there is?
5X2's Thursday screening at the Prytania is co-sponsored by the New Orleans Film Festival and The Consulat General de France a la Nouvelle-Orleans.
The film's title refers to its narrative structure: five extended scenes about two people, and more subtly, if we read the numerals as five by two, it also refers to the couple's child who at birth is placed in hospital crib No. 5. In a strategy we have seen previously in David Jones's film of the Harold Pinter play Betrayal and more recently in Christopher Nolan's Memento, 5x2 is told in reverse, from a relationship's end back toward its beginning. And you are well served to know that strategy going in to avoid seemingly needless, if only momentary, disorientation as the film moves from its first sequence backwards toward its second.
We meet our principals on the occasion of their divorce. Marion Chabart (Valeria Bruin-Tedeschi) and Gilles Ferron (Stephane Freiss) have been married long enough to produce a 4-year-old son and, apparently, have given up on ever living together contentedly. The divorce is glum but utterly amicable. They have no arguments about division of property, alimony or child support and custody. In their sad faces we read mostly weariness and defeat. Then the first of a series of odd things happens. After all the papers are signed, Marion and Gilles retreat to a hotel room where they've obviously agreed to have sex one last time. Given Gilles' insensitive and ultimately violent behavior, which she must have experienced previously, we haven't a clue why Marion agreed to this tryst. And as we move backward through the course of their relationship, we won't ever discover her motivations.
Segment two shows Marion and Gilles as relatively newlyweds and gives evidence that both are caring parents for their toddler son. But when they have friends for dinner, one guest makes reference to knowing that their marriage is already under strain. The third scene is set during the last hours of Marion's pregnancy and the first perilous hours in her newborn's life. The fourth passage details events on the day Marion and Gilles marry. And the last shows them as they meet and take the first steps on a journey that will lead to heartache.
Ozon's reverse narrative strategy demands that we look in all scenes set before the divorce for the reasons the marriage ultimately foundered. And we can certainly draw conclusions. When they first meet, Marion is on the rebound from an earlier relationship that we gather she wishes hadn't ended. So perhaps she takes up with Gilles when she's emotionally vulnerable. From his side, Gilles is still involved with a beautiful but nasty-mannered woman named Valerie (Geraldine Pailhas), whom, we suspect, he's altogether delighted to abandon. Subsequent events illustrate ways that Gilles and Marion are poorly matched. Their sexual relationship goes awry almost instantly. And we are perhaps supposed to judge that Marion is too withdrawn, too ready to move to the sidelines to observe life whereas Gilles is eager to act, a natural extrovert compelled to see life as an adventure to be experienced first hand.
In the end, however, we mostly regard Gilles as a selfish jerk, and we can't figure out why Marion stays with him nearly as long as she does. He's not accomplished enough for her to be dazzled by his professional stature, not rich enough to change her material lifestyle, never so physically alluring to cloud her non-sexual instincts. Gilles' behavior on the night his son is born prematurely by emergency Caesarean section is never explained but nonetheless appalling and unforgivable. And then there's the story he tells to friends about a particular sexual escapade that seems designed to humiliate Marion in the strangest way. Marion is not without her flaws, either, and she's never so endearing to somehow turn her divorce into a triumph. That's why the film's end at the beginning leaves us feeling so malnourished. In the modern Western world, marriages fail all the time, so we obviously have much to learn about love and fidelity. Alas, 5X2 has nothing to teach.
- Beachy keen: Marion Chabart (Valeria Bruin-Tedeschi) meets Gilles Ferron (Stephane Freiss) at the beginning -- or is that the end? -- of Francois Ozon's latest work, 5X2, screening Thursday at the Prytania.