5 x 2

(François Ozon, France, 2004)


Australian screenwriters tend to combine two bad habits drawn from their American and British counterparts.

From America comes the obsession with subplots – minor characters doing minor things in the margin of the central action, usually to fill out the running time. From Britain comes the kitchen-sink obsession with doggedly placing every character within an occupation and a workplace (so that we see them testing toy trains or filling laboratory test tubes).

French cinema – even of the most ordinary sort – has the knack of avoiding these dreary time-wasting diversions. François Ozon’s 5 x 2 is a striking example of a film with absolute focus.

It offers the story of a couple, Marion (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) and Gilles (Stéphane Freiss), from go to woe, across five scenes, five privileged moments. We never see them at work; in fact, we scarcely even see their child. Their intimacy, and its failure, is all that matters here.

The only trick is that the five scenes appear in reverse order – starting with the tension of divorce proceedings and ending with the first encounter. Ozon’s aim, however, is quite contrary to that of Gaspar Noé in his similarly chronologically-shuffled Irreversible (2002). Where Noé set out to prove (in a rather facile way) that "time destroys everything" and that gloomy tragedy is inevitable, Ozon brings out a sunnier paradox: if the "happy beginning" can be remembered and asserted, then in some sense it endures forever.

However, 5 x 2 is, for much of its unfolding, hardly a love-fest – and thus as far from When Harry Met Sally (1989) as it is from Irreversible. Ozon and his regular co-writer Emmanuèle Bernheim study, in their cool, steely way, the small breakdowns in communication, the divergences in behaviour and desire that open up cracks in this marriage. The atmosphere is almost too asphyxiating, until the rapturous scene of Marion and Gilles’s wedding celebration shows us the deep feeling that once united this pair.

I am an Ozon fan, but 5 x 2 – however superbly acted and staged – is not among his best films. Ozon has stated that he wanted to rigorously avoid a vulgar kind of psychological guessing game – planting clues that would lead viewers to pounce on some clear-cut reason for the couple’s split – but he has not entirely succeeded in this task. An even less eventful sequence of tableaux would have been required, and Ozon was clearly unwilling to go that far into minimalism.

Although Ozon is, like Almodóvar, a supremely generous and open-minded artist, 5 x 2 is the first work of his which made me feel that I was seeing a narrowly queer interpretation of a heterosexual relationship. It is little wonder that Freiss has confessed, in an interview, that he took his character to be a repressed homosexual. And a key scene, involving Marion’s behaviour on her wedding night, seems to me a strange and scarcely believable fantasy-projection on Ozon’s part.

5 x 2, however, does not exit one’s memory quickly. Even with lesser material, Ozon knows how to shape all the elements of story, style and performance into a singular, indelible mood. And his devotees know that, being such a prolific filmmaker, Ozon will take what he has explored here and perfect it in another movie two, five or ten years hence.

MORE Ozon: 8 Femmes, Short Films of François Ozon, Swimming Pool, Under the Sand

© Adrian Martin November 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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