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French director Francois Ozon has been making a minor splash in America. His recent films Swimming Pool, 8 Women, and Under the Sand have all crossed the pond and enjoyed some success here. His latest film, 5x2, is among his best.

Not a Trick

They looked for love so hard that they found it, whether or not it was there
They looked for love so hard that they found it, whether or not it was there

5x2 sounds like a gimmick. It is the story of a divorce, told in reverse, in five parts. The film opens on a lawyer reading the terms of their divorce to Marion (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) and Gilles (St├ęphane Freiss). It ends years earlier with their first date.

5x2 does not feel like Memento, where the form takes center stage. Nor is it a trick to give the movie a happy ending. Ozon is so interested in emotion and character that the gimmick doesn’t feel like a gimmick at all. It feels like a natural introduction to the characters. We find out they’re divorced, and then we start going back through their history to find out what went wrong.

What Were They Thinking?

As closely as we scrutinize their relationship, we don’t really get to know Marion and Gilles. Ozon teases us with scenes that aren’t fully explained. We want to know what’s going on in the characters’ minds, but he almost never fills us in.

For example, after the divorce, the couple rent a hotel room to de-consummate their marriage. The moment is so awkward that we wonder why it’s even happening. They must have agreed to it beforehand, but was it mutual? Was it a condition of the divorce? Did Marion win some concession from Gilles for agreeing to it? Or is it just some bad idea that they both thought sounded good at the time?

Earlier, Gilles can’t bring himself to attend the birth of his son. Even after Nicolas is born, he leaves the hospital as soon as possible and instead sits in his car. Marion seems to understand his aversion, although she doesn’t seem to like it. But what exactly is his distaste? And have they talked about it beforehand, or is Marion just attuned to his hang-ups? The actors sell it, but they never explain it.

Love in General

These unexplained moments hint that the movie is not so much about Marion and Gilles as it is about imperfect relationships in general. When they met, Marion and Gilles were both looking for love.They were looking so hard that perhaps it was inevitable they would find it, whether or not it was there.

Their wedding is traditional and unexceptional (they all look the same unless you’re personally involved). Ozon keeps his distance, and we don’t see Marion and Gilles but a generic bride and groom, each in uniform, playing the usual role. Weddings are rituals that cement the bond between two people. Marion and Gilles seem to be going through the motions, hoping that the cement will be enough.

There is a touching, sweet moment in 5x2 that illustrates the corollary. Ozon is not completely cynical; he does say that love is possible and that relationships can work. After the wedding, the bride has gotten back into her street clothes, and she heads back into the night to see who’s still up. She spies the last two people still dancing: her parents. A warm smile comes across her face, both for her parents’ lifelong happiness and for her own hopes of happiness.

But Marion is not her mother, as the very next scene shows. I’ll leave it for you to discover.

Dramatic Irony

There are dozens of brilliant moments in 5x2. My favorite is the time Marion most forcefully tells her husband she loves him. It is a moment loaded with dramatic irony; we know she feels guilt and relief, and that Gilles does not know all the facts. We can see right into both of their minds.

On reflection, one could make the case that Ozon lays the dramatic irony a little thick. After all, the whole structure is designed to let us in on the fact of their divorce while Marion and Gilles are still living their lives together. And the second segment nearly spells out the movie’s message at a dinner party with Maion, Gilles, Gilles’ gay brother, and his lover. They talk of relationships, of fidelity and infidelities, and of what makes a relationship last.

But the irony never feels too thick, and there is some satisfaction in spotting details, gestures, looks, and pauses that predict the couples’ ultimate demise. Rather than letting us feel smug and superior, it evokes our pity for these two people who are genuinely trying to make it, deluded though they may be.

Dark Tones

I made the mistake of joking that the movie must have a happy ending because the couple starts out divorcing and ends up falling in love. But that would have been too easy a trap for Ozon to fall into. Instead, he takes the idea that this couple never should have fallen in love in the first place.

The last shot is photographed in the golden light of a sunset. The two lovers enter the ocean together, and swim out toward the sunset. The waters are said to be dangerous because of the undertow, but they make the leap, together.

It would be easy to play this scene in an ironic yet hopeful way. Instead, Ozon sides with those who say the water is dangerous. The sun is going down, and the light, though golden, is dark, creating silhouettes and shadows. Neither of our heroes really ought to be here with the other, and the music is deliciously sad and pitying. Marion and Gilles are too willing to hope for the best, spurred on by mild desperation and loneliness.