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Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2005

What's love got to do with it?

5 X 2

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Francois Ozon
Running time: 90 minutes
Language: French
Opens Aug. 20
[See Japan Times movie listings]

A man and a woman are sitting in an office where a lawyer is reading out the final terms of their divorce. They listen to him setting out their custody rights over their 5-year-old son and the division of their property, the final, dry words that seal the fact that they are no longer a couple.

News photo
Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and Stephane Freiss in "5 X 2"

Immediately afterward, the pair go to a hotel for what is apparently a premeditated session of goodbye sex. The woman loses her nerve and tries to call it off, but the husband forces her down on the bed, and she closes her eyes, willing it to be over. Then they hurriedly get dressed. He mumbles something about "maybe getting back together." She tells him quietly that everything is over.

Ah, the strange dynamics of men and women! Of love and marriage and . . . .divorce! French filmmaker Francois Ozon, with his trademark cynicism and uncanny insight into the workings of the female mind, brings us "5 x 2 (Cinq Fois Deux)," an elegantly dark and perceptive take on the married relationship.

The tale is divided into five segments that illustrate various key moments in the couple's life, beginning with the opening sequence of the divorce proceedings and then gradually rewinding to the final section, which depicts the moment they first fall in love. This present-to-past structure has, since "Irreversible," become familiar, and stylistically it seems the logical and ideal way to pinpoint the exact moments of rupture and subsequent break-up of the relationship.

Ozon, however, distances his story from easy solutions -- each segment relates certain telling moments, but none are decisive. Accordingly, "5 x 2" doesn't inspire regret or recede into a show of sadness so we can shake our heads and sigh over the demise of love.

After the splashy showiness of previous works like "The Swimming Pool" and "Eight Women," here Ozon is at his most carefully restrained, subtle and atypically sincere. One false move could have sent "5 x 2" hurtling off the cliff into the valley of melodrama, but that veritable banana peel goes unslipped-on. As it is, this is a work of shattering brilliance.

In the second segment there's a line spoken by the husband: "Wouldn't you like to know what ordinary, heterosexual love is all about?" which pretty much sums up "5 x 2." We see how the rules of monogamy become meaningless, how mechanical politeness gradually replaces outbursts of emotion, the way the repeated offerings of "I love you" sound more and more like a casual salutation. Ozon re-creates that particular strain running like a poisonous current under the fabric of daily married life; occasionally it surfaces, does its damage and then submerges itself once more. Often, it's not the exchange of actions and words between husband and wife but the little private details of life, unknown to the other, that have the biggest repercussions. Witness for example, how the husband Gilles (Stephane Freiss) reacts when his wife Marion (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) calls him at the office to say that she is at the maternity clinic, about to go into premature labor. Gilles immediately tells his secretary to hold all calls and then goes out to lunch alone where he tears voluptuously into a plate of steak (rare!). He lingers over coffee and then sits in the car, dragging pensively on a cigarette. When he finally gets to the clinic, his new-born son is lying inside an incubator and his mother-in-law upbraids him for being late. He leaves without seeing Marion, and calls her later on her cellphone. "I love you," he tells her. In her bed, Marion stares into space and weeps a little -- she doesn't understand this seemingly cold withdrawal from what should have been a joyous occasion, but lacks the energy to challenge and question him. "Yes," she says, sighing. "I love you too."

Gilles and Marion are by no means extraordinary, and for the most part they are what society calls "good people," giving their best shots at being happily married. That their efforts ultimately fail is not their fault personally, but just part of the package, and Ozon observes (without animosity) that marriage/monogamy is bound to destroy itself. The fourth segment is of their wedding, and shows a deliriously happy Marion dancing late into the night with Gilles, and the solemn conviction on both their faces as they take their vows before a loving group of family and friends. The frames look drenched in golden hues of happiness and ardor, all the more poignant because we've already seen how those colors later fade and disappear. It's not about what went wrong, Ozon seems to be saying, but more about the hopelessly romantic and unrealistic expectations that marriage enforces on normal men and women. Sure enough, after the party Gilles collapses in a drunken stupor onto their nuptial bed, leaving a disappointed Marion to pull on her jeans and wander out for a walk. The seeds of their parting were already there and this is why, according to "5 x 2," divorce is every bit as important as marriage.

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