Francois Ozon’s previous films have been extraordinary, in terms of both style and content, so it’s sad to have to report that his latest is a dud. “5×2,” the story of the unraveling of a marriage from the first meeting of the couple to their divorce, certainly tries to tell its familiar tale in a different way. Not only does it narrate the unhappy story in discrete chapters or segments–the “5” of the title–but it arranges them in reverse order, so that we move from the divorce proceedings to a tension-fraught dinner party with the husband’s gay brother and his newest partner, to the events surrounding the birth of the couple’s son, to their wedding and finally to the beach resort where they first got to know one another while vacationing. The idea of telling a story in reverse is no great innovation, of course; such different artists as Harold Pinter (“Betrayal”) and Stephen Sondheim (“Merrily We Roll Along”) have tried that. To multiply the structural peculiarity, though, Ozon, who’s known for his technical skill, also shoots each episode in a somewhat distinctive style, beginning with a brutally Bergmanesque opening and gradually moving to a brighter, almost ebullient tone by the end. But even in this respect the film lacks the exquisite attention to detail that Ozon’s earlier ones exhibited; the five parts don’t stand apart from each other as strongly as they might have done.
Still, the picture might have worked if the characters of Marion and Gilles that the director and co-writer Emmanuele Bernheim have created, and actors Valeria Bruni-Tadeschi and Stephane Freiss play, were a more compelling or credible couple. Taking the relationship in chronological order rather than that adopted by the film, we watch as they first become involved at a vacation retreat where he’s come with an earlier girlfriend (Geraldine Pailhas) and she, a rather mousy type, arrives alone. By the end of the stay they’ve found one another and literally walk off into the sunset. But though the wedding that “follows” is a celebratory affair, it ends with Marion betraying her new husband by linking up with a handsome stranger after Gilles has collapsed dead-drunk in the marital bed. Segue to the birth of their son–an event that introduces Marion’s abrasive, quarreling parents (Francoise Fabian and Michael Lonsdale) and depicts Gilles’ curious reluctance to be present at the hospital. The next episode, however, shows him a loving father (if he is in fact the boy’s biological dad), even as–at a dinner party with his gay brother Christophe (Antoine Chappey) and Christophe’s current boyfriend, a much younger man named Mathieu (Marc Ruchmann), the longevity of whose relationship are in question–Gilles describes an incident of infidelity to Marion on his part. Before long, it appears, they’re finalizing their divorce, agreeing to a division of property and custody of their son. But they follow the legal proceedings by going to a hotel room and having rough sex–with Gilles eventually forcing Marion in the act.
The reverse ordering of these episodes does bring a few surprises (that is, one might be inclined to feel more for Marion until the fact of her earlier dalliance on their wedding night is revealed), but it’s hard not to dismiss that as a narrative stunt; much the same effect could have been gotten by presenting the tale straightforwardly if the mode of telling were astute. And the effort to distinguish the “acts” stylistically doesn’t make up for the narrative weaknesses, the most notably of which is the essential opacity of the lead characters, who as a result also come across as strangely unsympathetic. One suspects that’s more the fault of the writing than the acting, but still Bruni-Tedeschi and Freiss don’t do much to alleviate the problem. (The more heart-on-sleeve attitudes of the supporting characters, as unpleasant as some of them might be, is rather a refreshing change.) The picture looks okay without ever matching the elegance of Ozon’s previous work, but the musical choice (presumably of Philippe Rombi) in closing each episode with the fragment of an Italian song seems a bit tacky–as though we needed to be informed that a new chapter was beginning.
In the final analysis watching “5×2” is rather like reading a book from which most of the connective chapters have been removed, backwards–and in which the writing isn’t sufficiently remarkable to make up for diffuseness in substance. Let’s hope that it proves a momentary bump in the road for this fine writer-director.