5x2 (15)

A marriage back to front
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Without our really noticing, an unlikely genre has come into being: the movie that goes backwards. It made its debut with Betrayal, the 1983 film of Harold Pinter's play in which an adulterous affair is traced from its bitter fag-end right back to the spark that lit the whole shooting-match. In 1986, Jane Campion's TV film Two Friends told the story of a friendship in reverse.

But it wasn't until Christopher Nolan's murder mystery Memento (2000), and Gaspar Noé's violent Irréversible (2002) that the backwards structure really attracted attention; switching the timeframe back to front wasn't just a gimmick, it was a means of exploring memory, varying the tone and, let's be honest, messing with your head.

The young French film-maker François Ozon has adapted the technique in his latest offering, 5x2, a movie that invites us to perform a kind of spiritual autopsy on a recently dead marriage. The evidence we are sifting comprises five key moments in the couple's life, starting in an office where they are finalising their divorce. Marion (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) and Gilles (Stéphane Freiss) sit next to one another as a lawyer reads out the terms of their sundering; both of them have the distracted air of people lost in a dream and wishing they could wake up.

From the lawyer's they go, by some strange prearrangement, to a hotel room, strip off and climb into bed. "It doesn't make sense," he says to her, though whether he's referring to this horizontal adieu or the dawning realisation of their break-up is uncertain. Afternoon sex in a hotel room is a thing adulterous couples do - but newly divorced ones?

Ozon enjoys tantalising his audience, and especially so where the mysteries of coupledom are concerned. His early features, Sitcom and Gouttes d'eau sur pierres brûlantes (Water Drops on Burning Rocks), were bracingly nasty squibs on sexual deviance, and seemed to announce him as an heir to Buñuel. But then, almost out of the blue, came Sous le sable (Under the Sand), an exquisitely controlled drama about a woman so deeply in denial that she won't acknowledge the fact of her husband's death. It's a remarkable film, not just for Charlotte Rampling's eerie composure as the widow, but for the way that its opening 20 minutes, the portrait of an apparently stable marriage, demanded reconsideration in the light of the husband's disappearance. Was there something we'd missed in the easy familiarity between them? Were there fault lines that we should have spotted?

5x2 poses the same questions, and by throwing its narrative into reverse, allows us the luxury of foresight. We are on the alert for clues as to why this marriage will fail, though recognition of them as clues isn't immediate. There is nothing strikingly objectionable about Marion or Gilles: she's tender-hearted, self-contained, shy, oddly beautiful; he's prone to boredom, lazily tolerant, and unsure of himself. The first time we register a significant tremor on the marital seismograph is during a cosy dinner when Gilles tells the story of a party he and Marion attended which, at some point in the evening, became an orgy. He joined in, he recalls. She didn't.

As he recounts this to his guests, he doesn't notice the tears in Marion's eyes, and nor does anyone else. His unthinking candour has exposed a somewhat aggressive sexuality, though it's also hard to ignore his snippiness as they're clearing up at the end of the evening - "Rinse the plates before you put them in the washer," he tells her. Did she remember that tone when they were breaking up?

The film disconcerts partly on account of its impersonal, matter-of-fact style. Ozon allows things to happen so casually that they're gone before we've had a chance to take them in. A pair of secrets, one his, one hers, are stowed away like time bombs. When Marion is rushed to hospital to give birth, Gilles ignores the phone calls importuning his presence; later, quizzed as to his whereabouts, he lies about being stuck in traffic. This seemed far more plausible as a guilty secret than Marion's wedding-night infidelity; having left Gilles drunkenly asleep in their hotel bedroom, she goes for a solitary midnight wander through the gardens and meets - no kidding - a tall, dark stranger who takes her in his manly embrace and... well, two words came to mind at this point: "Mills" and "Boon". Perhaps Ozon or his co-writer Emmanuèle Bernheim had heard of just such a betrayal and wanted to work it into their script, but dramatising it requires a greater degree of stealth than they can manage.

Where the film truly gets under your skin is in the final section, which recounts how Marion and Gilles became a couple. With its sunny meditative tone and blithe coincidences, this inescapably recalls Eric Rohmer's tales of youthful romance, and sharpens the paradoxical nature of the enterprise: the ending of the film echoes the ending of the marriage, and yet the last image is a long-held shot of the couple, newly in love, striking out to sea beneath a glistening postcard sunset. How could such optimism founder?

Ozon said that the film was driven by his realising how few people he knew whose relationships had lasted more than five years. Yet, from the fleeting and impermanent, he has fashioned a substantial and haunting film, beautifully acted by Bruni-Tedeschi and Freiss. One could see it as a corrective to last week's 9 Songs. Both films describe the arc of a relationship, both are experimentally structured, both are the work of young directors. But only one of them makes you feel you've been on a journey - even if it is going backwards.