There's something clinical about 5x2 -- and not just because its first scene, set in the office of a divorce attorney, suggests the discomfiture of a doctor's visit in which the patient is confirmed in his suspicion that he actually died some months earlier. It also has to do with how filmmaker François Ozon structures his film: backward, from chronologically last to first. In this emotional autopsy, you read the death notice, then thumb through the file until the victim appears in the blush of youth.
The patient here is the ties that bind Gilles and Marian, a handsome couple in early middle age. After they leave the lawyer, Ozon follows the emotionally exhausted pair to a hotel room where we see that their breakup was the result of more than mild irreconcilable differences: Gilles (Stéphane Freiss), denied a last consensual fuck by the over-it Marian, rapes her instead.
Then Marian (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) walks out of the film and (we hope) out of Gilles' orbit for good -- only to reappear in sequence two as a vivacious, seemingly happy wife and mother. She's set to host her husband's brother and his rather younger boyfriend for dinner and also, unexpectedly, some disturbing insights about their own apparently ordinary middle-class lives. And so on through three more passages, each but the last land-mined with its own dirty little surprise about the bride or the groom.
When commenced the mini-vogue for narratives that are literally over when they begin? (Before recent films including Memento and Irreversible there was the 1991 Martin Amis novel Time's Arrow.) More importantly, what's the point? Would 5x2 be any better, or worse, if we re-reversed the sequence? On one level, no: The merry community of the couple's wedding reception would still contrast with the becalmed near-claustrophobia that chronologically follows. (The earlier in their relationship, the more Gilles and Marian are seen outdoors.)
But backwards storytelling makes us concentrate harder, I think; it makes us interpret the actors' looks and gestures differently, and makes an anti-anti-climax of the marriage's immolation. It helps us, in other words, know what to look for as we trace the disease that killed the marriage from systemic cancer to barely detectable tumor.
But 5x2 describes a patient with a face. Ozon, known for his female protagonists (Under the Sand, Eight Women, Swimming Pool), here provides a chilling portrait of a man whose rage feeds off self-pity, and Freiss is unnervingly good in the role. Tedeschi is likewise fine as sensuous, spoilable Marian, in whose person alone any hopeful prognosis seems to reside. In French, with subtitles.