For the first 30 minutes of 5x2, François Ozon's new film about a relationship that fails, the young French director seems well on his way to a magnum opus. In two fierce and lucid scenes (of the five in the title), he creates a work of indelible cinema, attuned so sharply to the cadences of human relationship as to feel shockingly, bracingly alive. And then, piece by piece, Ozon undermines his own work. For anyone who believes in the gorgeously messy truth of the French social drama -- mastered most recently in Agnès Jaoui's Look at Me -- it's a grave disappointment. In fact, it sucks.
At least there's the opening to console us. Ozon, the director of Under the Sand, 8 Women, and Swimming Pool, begins the film at the chronological end, when the relationship is officially dissolved. The couple sit before a lawyer, stricken, as he reads the terms of their divorce. It's a lesson in the power of juxtaposition: The droning, emotionless tone of voice and exacting legal language set against the ravaged face of Marion (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) and the distracted, absent eyes of Gilles (Stéphane Freiss) together portray a precise brand of torture. The lawyer shares nothing with either Marion or Gilles, and they, who have obviously once shared so much, can no longer rely on each other to endure trials such as these. It's a testament to Ozon that he can represent such a moment on film and a credit to his actors that, in only a few moments, they can embody everything that has come before.
The rest of the film is consumed with exactly that: What has come before? (Well, there is a scene that occurs after the one in the lawyer's office -- or seems meant to, anyway. If Ozon had remembered to keep his male lead in the same clothing, there wouldn't be any confusion.) 5x2 travels backward through milestones in the relationship: an important evening with Gilles' brother (Christophe, played by Antoine Chappey), in which secrets are revealed; the birth of the couple's child; their wedding night, and so on. This conceit is nothing short of beautiful, allowing the import of the initial moments to grow, and the sorrow to deepen, as the film goes on. In a way, the backwards unfolding of the past mirrors our experience of the story; it's as though we've sat down with a stranger on a train and asked her how she was. "We were just divorced," she might say. "The lawyer -- there was something vicious in his distance." Then she would talk about the night with her husband's brother, and so on.
The problem with 5x2, and it's a large one, is Gilles. He is unlikable. As much as one wants to see his side of the conflict, since everybody has a side (and since the director insists in the production notes that, because Gilles is the weaker partner, he suffers more), he comes across as an aggressive, childish asshole, unable to show up for his wife at critical junctures of commitment, including the birth of their child. During Marion's difficult premature delivery, Gilles sits in a café, gnawing on steak and staring off into space. Marion leaves message after message, but Gilles doesn't answer his phone.
Further, there's no ignoring the scene directly after the divorce, in which Marion and Gilles share a hotel room for an apparent goodbye to sex. After an initial foray, Marion decides she'd rather not, and Gilles rapes her. Ozon may see it as something else -- another incident in the film seems to support the idea of a man's violent sexual pursuit as a turn-on for the woman -- but Marion screams "Stop!" at the top of her lungs, several times, before Gilles turns her over and forces her face into the pillow. Then, as she leaves the room, he informs her that she's won. "I didn't win or lose. It's just over," she replies. To which he responds: "You're right, as always." He rapes her, and he's the victim.
Marion, on the other hand, is a pleasure. Simultaneously strong and open, kind and fun, she's easy to love and to respect. (Bruni-Tedeschi gives a gorgeous, wrenching performance.) And what a film 5x2 could have been if Gilles were admirable as well. Instead of revealing only that Marion married an asshole, it could have said something far deeper. It could have looked at a relationship that began in joy and connection and ended in disaster, and it could have sought to discover why. Where are those moments in which a couple's connection begins to unravel, thread by thread? How does it happen, and why? When does a relationship become unsalvageable?
5x2 could have been Ozon's finest film, as well as one of the best relationship dramas in recent memory. Instead, what begins in grandeur ends in cliché, as Marion and Gilles swim into an Italian sunset, complete with an undulating orange reflection on the sea. By then, we're not rueful that their good relationship went bad. We're simply sorry they ever met.