Reverse chronologies are nothing new to narrative. Some of the best-known ones include Kaufman and Hart's 1934 play Merrily We Roll Along (later made musical by Stephen Sondheim), Harold Pinter's Betrayal, and Gaspar Noé's 2003 film Irreversible. These plots never fail to make a wrenching impact on our delicate sensibilities (who doesn't fear the terrible vagaries of time, untouchable by foresight?), and François Ozon's latest, 5x2, is no exception in its five-stop tour of a misbegotten marriage.
Ozon begins at the end of the marriage, with Marion (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) and Gilles (Stéphane Freiss) gritting themselves against a bureaucratic declaration of divorce, while a later scene itemizes the official—and public—agreement to marry; both scenes, in their contexts, ring with hollowness. The divorce proceeding—followed by an ill-advised, emotionally dangerous bout of "breakup" sex—precedes four other marital horrors: two tales of infidelity, Gilles's failure of support on the occasion of Marion giving birth to their child, and the couple's initial hook-up at an Italian beach resort, to the destruction of another relationship.
Ozon's reliance on obscurity has its advantages, but here they gain him little advantage. Gilles's perverse inability to join his wife before, during, or after her delivery is too specific a marital crime to bother shielding it from motivational detail, in hopes of audience identification. Why not give us insight into this pathology, rather than deliberately mystifying? The episode serves only to prove that Gilles is a world-class jerk, and Marion's mostly petty crimes (infidelity excepted) pale in comparison to his bad behavior in each chapter.
The resulting effect is extraordinary sympathy for the leading lady (not a surprise from Ozon, the director of 8 Women and Swimming Pool), and Bruni-Tedeschi is a typically luminous Ozon babe: sexy, alive to possibility, and doomed to be slowly drained of hope. Freiss smoothly navigates his rocky terrain, investing Gilles with enough devilish charm to at least explain Marion's emotional devotion and perhaps even generate sympathy for his marital hurts.
Ozon presents two couples for comparison and contrast: Marion's parents—who argue bitterly but cling to their enduring spark—and the gay twosome of Gilles's brother and his younger partner, who agree to the fair trade of an open relationship, with each man enjoying the quantifiably different but qualitatively commensurate benefits. In the end (or, rather, the beginning), Ozon presents no easy answers, but his often incisive "show, don't tell" character study makes touching emotional observations of marital folly.