At first glance, Fran Ozon’s 5×2 seems the most conventional—or at least unoriginal—movie this maturing French enfant terrible has made: a sober dissection of an abortive marriage utilizing the reverse-chronology trick that Harold Pinter employed in his adultery study Betrayal and that Ozon’s fellow provocateur Gaspar Noé recently applied to his cockeyed vision of domestic disaster Irreversible. But where Noé’s pretentious exploitation flick grinds its way backward to a trite avowal that “time destroys everything,” Ozon’s deceptively placid and subtly unpredictable drama is a more radical film—and in a sense a more violent one. Habitually concerned with the perils of coupledom, the director here launches a comprehensive assault on the traditional heterosexual model of family and marriage.
So titled because it consists simply of five key moments in the life of an ordinary couple, 5×2 begins at the end—and the conclusion of this relationship is nothing if not definitive. Marion (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) and Gilles (Stéphane Freiss) sit in glazed silence listening to the terms of their divorce—the grim, interminable minutiae of custody arrangements and financial obligations. Not content merely with declaring this union legally dead, Ozon stages a necrophilic desecration: The exes, having just agreed to “revoke all advantages granted during their marriage,” proceed to a hotel room for a bout of breakup sex, and when she changes her mind, he rapes her.
Four more sequences follow: a dinner party, the birth of their son, their wedding night, and finally, the first spark of romance, on a beach in Italy. (The film also juxtaposes its central relationship with other templates: Marion’s parents, who despise each other but are committed for the long haul; Gilles’s gay brother and his younger lover, who have an open relationship that may or may not work as well as they claim it does.) 5×2 begs to be read as evidence, sifted for signs of strain—and we do see Gilles and Marion commit at least one treacherous act each-—but there’s nothing quite so conclusive as a turning point. The irreducible complexity of their relationship is implicit in the mysterious ellipses. If anything,
5×2, with its big blocks of negative space, gets more opaque the further back it rewinds. Hindsight is of minimal benefit here.
5×2‘s chronology suggests a trajectory akin to Noé’s and Pinter’s—a sadly ironic progression from misery to a now extinguished bliss, but again, it’s not that simple. The film casts a steely eye on the beginning of Gilles and Marion’s romance—which, like so many, is intimately connected to the death of other relationships and the selfish thirst for new sensation. Ozon, who routinely gravitates to bodies of water, orchestrates an inspired final shot at once poignant and horrific: two new lovers wading into the sea as the sun sets (the ridiculous postcard-perfection of the image underscored by the fact that it’s morning). The sudden flowering of irrational, overwhelming optimism is unnerving—it mirrors the workings of a passion-addled mind, not to mention the dangerous and all too human urge to freeze a perfect moment in time. 5×2 tacitly interrogates the tyrannizing ideals and hypocritical norms that compel people into doomed relationships that persist long enough for lasting damage to occur. In other words, it’s less an anti-marriage movie than a pro-divorce one. Its real happy ending may be the one that happens at the very beginning.