Francois Ozon's "5x2" might be described as one of those new-fashioned movies in which boy loses girl, boy gets girl, then boy meets girl: It begins at the end and ends at the beginning.
There are merits to this radical style, as Harold Pinter discovered more than 20 years ago in his play and film "Betrayal," which followed the same format. More recently the Argentine bad boy Gaspar Noe, who works in France, played the trick in "Irreversible." From the ugliness of the crackup, we can trace back to the little fissures and ruptures that caused it, small things that might have seemed innocuous but that we now recognize as ruinous.
But there are also annoyances to this form. Ozon codifies the backward march of time by hairstyle, and we watch the handsome Parisian couple Marion (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) and Gilles (Stephane Freiss) devolve into a younger look as the story resets itself every 20 minutes or so. Gilles, seen first in a beard and mane, reverts to dreary clean-cut yuppie while the svelte, sophisticated thirty-something Marion becomes a shapeless thing in a Jane Fonda /Joey Heatherton feathery fluff. You notice hair way too much.
Ozon had a minor breakout two years ago with "Swimming Pool," a tense psychological thriller that turned out to be set largely in the mind of its protagonist, a thwarted mystery writer played by Charlotte Rampling. Here, there's no doubt that what we're seeing is real -- it's too ugly to be fantasy -- but it's a film that's done in very much the same low-key, naturalistic style. It focuses on nuances of interpersonal relationships, subtle looks, accidental touches, vocal tones that are the true mode of expression, as opposed to those clumsy blunt instruments known as words.
The movie opens in a lawyer's office, where the two sleek but saddened grown-ups listen dully as their possessions -- including their son -- are parceled out by court decree. Anyone who's been through that will feel a twinge of pain as the law, in its clinical wisdom, quantifies and distributes what has been so blurred with emotional meaning.
Sad as that is, the movie then turns quite ugly. The two decide casually on a last sexual experience but -- like many of their previous sexual experiences, as we are soon to learn -- it does not go well. Marion ultimately pulls away, feeling ridiculous. Gilles reacts brutally with an act of rape that cannot be described further, and you see the play of classic male vanities: He yearns for control and respect, and, denied, he expresses his hostility with violence, which he then instantly regrets -- so guy -- and for which he tries to make amends, as if amends are possible.
Ozon never looks away; he's relentless, not particularly kind to his characters, completely free of idealization or sentimentality. The film is Bergman's "Scenes From a Marriage" without the boring parts -- wait, I'm not supposed to say that. Anyway, it slides back through the years, depicting a relationship that, though once tender and sweet, was probably doomed by various pathologies from the start.
The movie seems to confirm the computer programmer's sense of reality: garbage in, garbage out. Farmers would express the same idea as: You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. On the other hand, movie critics would have to argue: You can make a good movie about a bad marriage, as countless directors, the latest being Ozon, have discovered.
In the case of Marion and Gilles, the primary difficulty is sexual. Gilles seems unsure as to which team he plays for, and his sexual reticence with his wife, his lack of giving in bed, can never really be made up for by all the giving he does out of bed. In Scene No. 2, a dinner party with his homosexual brother and his brother's handsome young lover, the subject of infidelity comes up, and Gilles's story is extremely problematic: He tells the tale of a "fast" party, where, with Marion's permission, he joined an orgy pile on the floor, and it turns out it wasn't just the available women whose hospitality he enjoyed.
On it goes, back to the birth of their son, where it can be said that Gilles proves himself to be absolutely the kind of man who is at his worst when he needs to be at his best. Wait, it gets uglier: Another segment covers a wedding night you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy (though I would). Agh, such humiliation, and what seemed then to be a case of too much to drink reveals itself to be a case of hiding behind the excuse of too much drink.
As Marion, Bruni-Tedeschi is fabulous; in her big eyes one can see both wisdom and pain, but also bafflement, as she struggles to get into this man she has given her life and loins to, whose child she has mothered, whose bed she has slept in, and whom she doesn't really know. Freiss's Gilles is somehow less satisfactory, possibly because the movie is so pitched against him, possibly because he seems selfish and vain -- but worse than that, dishonest, not only with his wife but also with himself. It's difficult to care about him, and therefore difficult to appreciate the performance.
5x2 (90 minutes, in French with subtitles, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated R for graphic sexuality, language and drug content.