Backwards narratives carry with them a strong sense of irony. Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), for example, used the device because it fitted with the central character’s experience – he couldn’t remember more than a short period of time, and so we were continually moving backwards, and therefore always witnessing a scene devoid of cause or context. A particularly effective illustration of this approach was Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (2002), which told a story set over the course of a single day: a woman is raped, and her boyfriend seeks retribution. By seeing it unfold backwards, we focus first of all on the results of the rape, and by the end of the film we have a powerful sense of what lies just around the corner for the blissed-out female protagonist.
Francois Ozon’s seventh feature film in as many years, 5 x 2: Cinq Fois Deux (Five Times Two) also adopts this approach. It looks at five key moments in the relationship between two people, Marion (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) and Gilles (Stephane Freiss). The movie opens on the day of their divorce, then moves back in time to take in a dinner party they throw for Gilles’s brother and his new boyfriend, the day Marion and Gilles have their first child, the day of their wedding, and then the holiday on which they met.
Because Ozon has made films so steadily since his big-screen debut with Sitcom in 1998, the sense of creative development is marked. He has largely shed the sensationalist (and wicked) side which flirted with incest in Sitcom, cannibalism in Les Amants criminels/Criminal Lovers (1999) and transsexualism in Gouttes d’eau sur pierres brulantes/Water Drops on Burning rocks (2000), replacing it with an intricate sense of character and a beguiling open-mindedness. 5 x 2 shows how much his pared-down camera style and editing patterns have evolved: we are only a minute in and we have already grasped the history that Marion and Gilles share. It shows in their body language, their wordlessness, the expressions on their faces. There’s no question that Ozon commands our attention from the outset, no doubt that the actors convey the nuances of the relationship effectively.
There’s something unexciting about the movie, though. Has Ozon become too reliant on minimalism? Is he finding it difficult to top the wonderful, haunting Sous le sable (Under the Sand, 2001)? We could certainly say that he faltered somewhat with the rather unsteady musical 8 femmes (2002) and the puzzling Swimming Pool (2003). 5 x 2 depicts a relationship which goes sour, but it foregrounds its structure, from the title to the decision only to show moments of conventional social recognisability. The structure, though, is fairly easy to understand – and unfortunately there’s a sense that what happens to Marion and Gilles isn’t distinctive enough to offset the formal predictability.
But Ozon’s films sneak up on you. Swimming Pool seemed disappointingly thin on release, but resonates as a subtle work on the creative process. 5 x 2 uses its structure to illustrate the ways in which we analyse relationships once they start to go wrong, working back through them and, perhaps, seeking to remind ourselves why we were so into them in the first place. Unlike the end of Irreversible, where the image of bliss seems to caress us with the sense of doom, the awareness that events are going to play out in a very ugly fashion, 5 x 2’s conclusion savours the romantic moment and hints at a sense of renewal, by going some way towards erasing the memory of the friction which we have already witnessed