François Ozon's anti-romance 5x2 opens with a couple contemplating the end of their marriage.
It joins Yvan Attal's recent marital drama, Happily Ever After, as a film centered on the doldrums and difficulties of romantic love, which unfolds effortlessly in so many other films.
A bitterly pragmatic argument for the complexity of relationships, 5x2 doesn't make any bones about the grim course it's on.
While the terms of their divorce are read back to them by a lawyer, the couple, Marion (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) and Gilles (Stéphane Freiss), squirm and look anxious to have it done with. The scene is a reminder of how the same procedural rigamarole that occasions a divorce sounds much like the language at a wedding. But here the anticipation and romance have disappeared, with only the words left.
The simple act of signing their name to a document renders the couple legally divorced.
But the reality is far more complicated, as is revealed in a hotel room rendezvous immediately following their divorce. The couple perfunctorily undress and have sex, but the ugly denouement of their coupling provides its own argument for why the couple is doomed.
5x2 is a story told in five acts that retreat further and further into the history of this couple, from their first meeting at an Italian resort to the birth of their child, etc. Along the way, there are indications of profound underlying problems.
Recalling French upstart Gaspar Noé's Irréversible, which also told its tale in reverse, Ozon's narrative-in-reverse instantly conveys a sense of regret and melancholy, because we already know the story's sad outcome. Going masochistically back over the details that presaged the breakup only clarifies the impossibility of ever making things right.
In the process, Ozon offers a scathing indictment of heterosexual unions as built on a foundation of mutual deception. There's no happily ever after, Ozon asserts, only the assorted red flags signaling trouble on the horizon, a trouble rooted in a desire for monogamy that goes against human nature.
During a dinner party with Gilles' brother and his young, trendy lover, the subject of cheating is discussed. For the gay couple, it's an impossibility; better to acknowledge the futility of such promises and find a way to accept the cheating.
And it is infidelity that seeps into Gilles and Marion's relationship in almost every one of the five acts, from their first meeting to their wedding night.
One of the most inventive and risky directors working in French cinema today, Ozon has often treated the deeper emotional complications of relationships in a subtle, naturalistic style. His film Swimming Pool featured Charlotte Rampling as a novelist infatuated with the young woman who materializes on her vacation. And in Under the Sand, Rampling played a woman haunted by the sudden disappearance of her husband.
Though Ozon's styles shift dramatically, from frisky meta-musicals (8 Women) to avant-garde experiments (Water Drops on Burning Rocks), his films often contain an element of deep regret and the haunted quality of someone observing the inevitable. There is the sense that people are composed of many layers, and it is the filmmaker's impulse to slowly peel them away. Ozon doesn't propose to give us anything as simple as an answer. He only affirms what we all know to be true, that pat explanations in matters of the heart are nearly impossible.