Characterisation is a funny thing. Characters obviously have no inner lives and no existence beyond the indentations they leave on a text and yet a well-drawn character can seem human enough to warrant an emotional response from the audience. Characterisation works by tapping into the various short-cuts humans use in social interaction; As humans, we can never know what another person is thinking or feeling but we can infer their emotional state by considering their behaviour and comparing it to what feelings we think might prompt us to act in a similar fashion. Characterisation can thus be thought of as the art of building an evocative human shape from a series of descriptive passages. Strike the right poses at the right moments and a character will leap off the page but fail to make a character’s poses recognisable or fail to make those poses coherent and you will be left with a character that seems lifeless and inhuman.
Different cinematic traditions have different standards of characterisation. For example, travel back to 1930s Hollywood and it was still quite common for directors to use voice-overs and have their characters tell the audience what they were thinking. Fast-forward to contemporary Hollywood blockbusters and you find directors relying quite heavily on audience-recognisable character types whose inner lives are made accessible through a combination of unambiguous musical cues and absurd theatrical gestures including sinking to their knees and bellowing ‘Nooo’ into a rain-filled sky. Thankfully, not all cinematic traditions are as heavy-handed; Cinema originating in cultures with low-levels of emotional disclosure is far more subtle in its emotional topography and so audiences are forced to pay closer attention and approach scenes in different ways in order to catch the poses that might allow them to infer the presence of an internal state or collective vibe. The subtlety of character beats in Japanese film also explains its long-standing relationship with a European art house tradition in which directors seek to deliberately attenuate their characterisation in a bid to create characters that seem more complex and ambiguous. However, despite European film’s desire to keep its characters aloof, the last fifty years have still seen the emergence of not just stock characters but stock poses that serve as short-cuts in films that should not be about the easy answers. How many times have you seen art house films in which characters stare into the middle-distance impassively? How many times have you seen art house films in which a character fails to react to some devastating event and yet winds up over-reacting to some seemingly unrelated incident? As a general rule of thumb, if you are an art house director and your characterisation techniques are showing up on Mad Men then it is time to get yourself some new techniques… which is where François Ozon’s 5×2 comes in.
The elevator pitch for 5×2 is deceptive: The lifespan of a French middle-class marriage condensed down into five key moments visited in reverse order.
Telling a story (particularly a relationship-story) in reverse order is really not that interesting, aside from films such as Jane Campion’s Two Friends, Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible and Lee Chang-dong’s Peppermint Candy, we could also talk about novels like Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow or even Philip K. Dick’s Counter-Clock World and the episode of Red Dwarf that ‘borrows’ the idea and re-uses it for comic effect. Though certainly eye-catching, reverse chronology is a deeply problematic technique; rather than opening up relationships and stressing their chaotic natures, reverse-chronology lends them a sense of artificial inevitability as everything clicks into place and the film ends with an upbeat opening that functions as a happy ending. Thankfully, 5×2 is not just a film that begins with divorce and ends with a couple falling in love, it is a film whose approach to characterisation is so experimental and opaque that the audience is left wondering whether any relationship is comprehensible to the people outside of it.
The first scene finds Stephane Freiss’ Gilles and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s Marion sitting stony-faced before a lawyer as he reads out the conditions of their divorce. From there, the action moves to an ugly hotel room where the couple have decided to have sex before finally parting ways. The preceding sentences should give you a pretty good idea of the film’s modus operandi: The scene with the lawyer gives absolutely nothing away and the scene in the hotel room merely poses questions: Why are they having sex immediately after getting divorced? Is it supposed to help them part as friends or is it a reflection of a hedonistic tendency that might have wilted in the walled garden of a legally-sanctioned relationship? From there on in, the scene only becomes more cryptic as Marion’s apparent change of mind about post-marital sex prompts Gilles to rape her only for the pair to continue chatting afterwards as though nothing had happened. The interesting thing about this scene is that, in the context of another film, it might have told us quite a lot about Gilles and Marion’s relationship. Post-marital rape combined with evident emotional attachment is certainly an evocative pose that invites all kinds of speculation but Ozon’s decision to structure the film in reverse order means that we lack the context that might explain such a bizarre series of actions.
The second scene begins in happier times. An out of work (but less bearded and depressed-looking) Gilles is feeding the couple’s son when an elegant Marion sweeps in from work. She is genuinely delighted to find her ‘two guys’ there and skips out of the room to get ready for that evening’s dinner. When the first dinner guest arrives, he responds immediately to Marion and alludes to their marital difficulties suggesting that he might be Marion’s friend rather than Gilles’. This group dynamic is then confirmed when Gilles appears and is quite noticeably cool towards his guest who talks animatedly about his new relationship with a younger man. These little details paint Gilles as not only homophobic but also unhappy as his comments about the guest’s relationship and his behaviour towards Marion are so thick with micro-aggressions that they almost parse as outright hostility. However, having suggested that Gilles is a homophobe as well as a rapist, Ozon pulls the rug out from beneath his audience by revealing that the gay dinner guest is Gilles’ brother about whom Gilles is desperately worried. The charge of homophobia is further complicated by a frankly jaw-dropping sequence in which Gilles happily describes having sex with a load of men in front of Marion. Is Gilles playing head-games and trying to humiliate Marion or has booze loosened his tongue to the point where he has unwittingly revealed a sexual dynamic of almost oceanic depth and complexity? Much like the rape in the opening vignette, Gilles’ bisexual orgy is a hugely evocative power chord that should tell us a lot about the couple’s relationship and yet somehow contrives to provide nothing but questions.
The third scene could easily form the climax to a film about a tragic romance. It opens with a happy Marion attending a pre-natal clinic for an ultra-sound only to be told that her pregnancy is in trouble. Rushed into surgery for an emergency Caesarean, Marion calls Gilles on her mobile only for him to continue working at his desk. We then see him having lunch in a restaurant and finally having a smoke outside Marion’s hospital without going in. The baby is fine and yet Gilles refuses either to see it or to comfort Marion whose incomprehension hardens to resignation without really passing through either sadness or anger. The shot of a self-loathing Gilles calling Marion from outside the hospital is emotionally devastating, but again… we are denied a context that would allow us to make sense of it. Is Gilles merely selfish or is there a suggestion that the child might not be his? We know that he might well have had sex with a bunch of people in front of Marion without the relationship terminating so why should we assume that Marion remained monogamous? In fact… if Marion’s child was not Gilles, it would explain her delight at finding Gilles playing the role of the caring father in the film’s second vignette.
The fourth scene is so visually and emotionally reminiscent of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia that it is almost tempting to read it in terms of Von Trier’s ideas about depression. The scene opens in brilliant sunshine with Marion and Gilles getting married and then dancing with their happily-drunken friends and family. From there, we move to Marion and Gilles’ wedding night during which Gilles contrives to fall asleep while Marion takes off her wedding dress. Only ever so slightly disappointed, Marion pulls on some clothes and wanders back downstairs where she notes that her (usually bickering) parents are the last people on the dancefloor. Unseen, she walks out into the woods surrounding the hotel and is approached by a handsome American man who half-forces himself on Marion who almost immediately submits and spends the entire night fucking him before returning to the side of a sleeping Gilles.
This encounter with the American brings some sort of context to the film’s earlier scenes as it links Marion’s behaviour on her wedding night (having sex with some random guy after some protest) with her behaviour after the divorce (allowing her ex-husband to rape her without showing any real signs of resentment). It also lends some credibility to the suggestion that her child might not be Gilles’ and generally suggests that the marriage was in trouble almost from the start. The juxtaposition of Marion and Gilles’ ostensibly-fine-but-secretly-fucked marriage with the ostensibly-fucked-but-secretly-fine marriage of Marion’s parents is particularly evocative. What this scene also does is solidify the second scene’s suggestion that Gilles and Marion’s marriage might well be defined by a poorly-managed and unconventional sex life.
One of the deleted scenes included on the DVD finds a newly-cohabiting Gilles and Marion reading from a dog-eared copy of Pauline Reage’s Story of O, an infamous 1950s erotic novel about BDSM-infused relationships. Ozon’s decision to remove the scene makes perfect sense as a literary allusion that ham-fisted would have completely swamped the text of the film but it is interesting to consider Gilles and Marion’s relationship in D/s terms as Marion’s apparent indifference to sexual assault and tolerance of humiliation would certainly suggest a submissive if not actively masochistic streak. It would also shed an entirely different light on the film’s opening scene as what if Gilles was not raping Marion but giving her the kind of sex that she actually enjoys? The cryptic nature of the film’s characterisation keeps Marion and Gilles at arm’s length and the suggestion that the pair might enjoy (or at least indulge in) rape simulation would certainly fit with a film that seems designed to emphasise the inscrutable nature of other people’s relationships. It is – after all – so easy to get the wrong end of the stick…
5×2 concludes with a scene in which Marion and Gilles meet and ostensibly fall in love. Unexpectedly, Gilles is on holiday with someone else… a magnificently icy and disdainful woman whose slicked-back hair and commanding presence certainly evokes the iconography of kink. The woman has manifestly outgrown the uncharacteristically puppyish Gilles and when Marion and Gilles cross paths (recognising each other from work) she seems to steer Gilles into Marion’s path and then step back and let things happen. Gilles’ submissive nature is also evoked by his willingness to take part in a comedy skit put on by the staff of the holiday camp who order him about and flirt with him in a doomed attempt to make him feel uncomfortable.
Given that many of Ozon’s films allude to oceanic depths of transgressive sexuality concealed beneath a thin layer of heteronormative ice, it does not seem beyond the pale to suggest that he set out to make a film about two incompatibly kinky people who try and fail to make a marriage work. However, ignoring the strong steer we get from the deleted scene, 5×2 is amazingly unclear on why Marion and Gilles got together, why they stayed together long enough to get married, why they had a kid together or even why they got divorced. Ozon’s characterisation is so subtle and evasive that all we really get from the film is the sense that there is something massive and important that we do not and cannot know.
Some might view 5×2 as a film whose characterisation is simply too evasive to be functional. Marion and Gilles are beautifully portrayed and the film’s big moments are well-conceived and elegantly expressed but for all the evocative posing the film engages in, it seems more interested in capturing the negative space around the character beats than the beats themselves. My inclination is to view 5×2 as a work that challenges contemporary art house cinema with a series of experimental characterisation techniques.
The history of art house film is populated by dozens of potential histories. Every now and then, a director pushes at the outer limits of what film can accomplish and that experiment either convinces other people to re-use those techniques or the revolution dies on the vine. Reviews of 5×2 are middling enough to suggest that most people viewed the film as a failure and so we are unlikely to see anyone pick up Ozon’s baton and begin sculpting the negative space around relationships but it is easy to imagine a future in which the techniques deployed in 5×2 become standard in European film. 5×2 may well be something of a failure but it really is not for the want of trying.