Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The End Is The Beginning and The Beginning Is The End

5x2 (Dir: Francois Ozon)

This new film from Francois Ozon, the enfant terrible of French cinema, appears to have divided critics somewhat and I must admit that I was surprised by my own somewhat ambivalent feelings towards it. Ozon strikes me as one of the most promising among younger directors, and I would happily deploy him as armour to bolster my argument against those tedious ‘golden age theorists’ who think cinema is in a state of terminal decline. He has made films that veer from the wilfully perverse (‘Criminal Lovers’, ‘Sitcom’) to the lightweight and farcical (‘8 Women’, ‘Swimming Pool’ ‘Sitcom’) via a brilliantly intense examination of grief and loss (‘Under The Sand’) that remains his finest work to date. He has demonstrated both his prolificacy (a new film seems to emerge every year) and his deftness of touch arguably more successfully than the similarly lauded Michael Winterbottom, who may yet prove to be a jack of all trades but master of none.

‘5x2’ is without doubt his most mature and technically accomplished film yet. It is closest to ‘Under The Sand’ in atmosphere and impact. Like Mike Leigh’s recent ‘Vera Drake’, this film effectively utilises close-ups and claustrophobic theatrical situations to deconstruct its portrait of a disintegrating marriage. Like Gaspar Noe’s recent shocker ‘Irreversible’, it tells its story backwards, but with a much greater degree of subtlety. In fact, it may be the case that this film is too subtle – by leaving far more unstated than it includes, it proves somewhat elusive.

It begins superbly, with the divorce of its two protagonists – an uncomfortable office scene demonstrating cannily how a once emotional intimacy has been reduced to legalistic terminology, the rubble of a collapsed love. Ozon’s greatest success in this movie is to have the couple go to a hotel for one final act of love, rather than merely going their separate ways. What follows is the most torrid and uncomfortable sex scene I have ever witnessed in the cinema, and one that merits far more column inches than any of the ‘real sex’ in Winterbottom’s apparently simplistic ‘9 Songs’. It begins uneasily enough, but when she appears to change her mind, it appears to become rape. By virtue of the backward arc of the narrative, these moral complications are left unexamined, and we are left with a somewhat complicated view of Gilles, the husband, as the film progresses, and one, which I must admit left me viewing him in a somewhat unsympathetic light for the entire duration of the film.

The middle sections of the film are equally complex and problematic. Ozon depicts a party where Gilles’ homosexual brother and his new boyfriend, a blandly handsome and unashamedly promiscuous Mediterranean type come round for dinner, alcohol and soft drugs, and a rather stilted examination of conventional and unconventional relationships ensues. The results are appropriately uneasy – but I do wonder if this is the kind of conversation real people have at dinner parties. It’s essential for Ozon’s narrative structure that it appears – but does it really shed any light on the mystery of human relationships beyond the merely prosaic? Although this is the least camp of Ozon’s films, he seems unable to resist the introduction of a gay element here, and it just feels a little incongruous given the closed, introverted nature of its central couple. Also, using homosexuality as a means of elucidating differences between ‘conventional’ and ‘unconventional’ relationships strikes me as an entirely unnecessary and unhelpful dichotomy (this film will only reinforce the opinion held by evangelicals and right-wingers that homosexuality threatens to destroy the institution of marriage) – but that’s for an entirely different discussion.

Ozon then moves to depict the birth of their child, in complicated medical circumstances, with real technical mastery. This is the one section of the film where I felt an emotional connection with the characters, and it was a careful, controlled examination of how one central event can undermine intimacy and trust between two people. When Gilles fails to appear at the birth to support his wife, there is a sense of palpable inevitability (especially given the reverse structure of the film) – a line has been crossed and the consequences will not be reversed. The earlier scenes, where we see Gilles bonding intimately with his son far more than with his wife, are now thrown into much sharper focus by this section of the film, and his unsympathetic character more carefully illuminated.

The marriage sequence shows us the untainted abandon and excitement of romance effectively, but it is also where Ozon makes his most significant misstep. By introducing a nameless hunk to tempt Marion into adultery on their wedding night, Ozon indulges his taste for the palpably absurd. It’s almost as if, to provide some balance for his resolutely unsympathetic portrait of Gilles, he has to give Marion a flaw of her own. Unfortunately, this scene is just so clunky and mishandled that the tactic misfires spectacularly, leaving the audience confused and frustrated. It also seems to imply that the marriage was doomed from the very outset – which gives the film an even greater sense of overbearing inevitability.

The final holiday resort scenes, which finally show us where Marion and Gilles first meet, are quietly charming, but the character of Gilles’ former girlfriend of four years seems tokenistic and underwritten, and her outpourings of jealousy and frustration seem like stereotyped and conventional female responses to the encroaching threat of ‘the other woman’, whether real or imagined. Again, Ozon’s direction is more subtle than his writing, and we are left with the sense that these early flourishings of intimacy are left underplayed and are something of a missed opportunity.

Some people may feel moved by this film’s conclusion, and may feel that the reverse narrative adds dramatic and emotional weight. Others may feel that it adds only cynicism and inevitability to an already slight portrayal of a disintegrating marriage. I felt sandwiched uncomfortably between these opposing viewpoints. I desparately wanted to react without cynicism to this accomplished piece of film-making – but it would be giving Ozon too much dramatic license to ignore this film’s significant flaws. Given his love of theatre, and his comfortable handling of comedy and farce in earlier pictures, it is a surprise that its Ozon’s writing here that lets him down somewhat. I felt we needed to know more about this film’s central characters – not even the most intense of marriages can possibly exist in complete isolation. The film is excellent and effective in portraying honestly the profoundly irrational actions of human beings (Gilles does not seem to know why he cannot bring himself to support Marion during childbirth). A lesser director would have made a film where the characters’ actions were more calculated and less convincing (and this makes the film’s two major slips – the dinner party conversation and Marion’s wedding-night temptation) seem even more superfluous. ‘5x2’ is as engrossing a film as one might expect from Ozon – but it doesn’t achieve the poignancy and profundity of Bergman, arguably the best director of these claustrophobic pieces (‘5x2’ will inevitably be compared unfavourably with ‘Scenes From A Marriage’, or perhaps more appropriately with its imminent sequel ‘Saraband’). Still, perhaps at this stage that kind of creative brilliance is an unrealistic expectation – and Ozon is a less weighty and more playful director than Bergman anyway. It may be satisfying enough that he is continuing to develop his control and technique, expanding his range along the way.

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