Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Oct 27, 2004 10:51 pm 
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The irreversible mediocrity of a failed marriage

Backward chronology may be on the way to becoming a chic cliché since Christopher Nolan's Memento, a status secured by Gaspar Noé's controversial and disturbing Irréversible. The latter begins with two violent scenes, first of a brutal murder, then the rape and beating which it avenges, and then in the rest of the movie goes on to the calmer events that led up to this very ugly opening double "finale." Memento, as most people know by now, leads through a series of nervous, dreamlike noirish episodes from a death to a moment (not seen) where the main character's wife was murdered and he determines to avenge this. François Ozon's 5 x 2 (Cinq fois deux or five times two) has quite a different sort of subject, though it too has a kind of consensual rape early on. The purpose of this film is to recount the failure of a marriage in five major sequences – backward from the divorce agreement verbally conducted in a lawyer's office to a pleasant idyl at a resort at the film's end, where the couple first meet, though we already know that the husband is going to have an affair. (Compared to the other two movies, 5 x 2's law office opening is awfully flat -- in fact the whole movie seems rather low on fun; hence perhaps the need to spice things up with the ugly sex scene that follows, i.e., immediately precedes it in time.)

As with any such reverse rearrangement, 5 x 2 seeks to examine causality: post hoc, ergo propter hoc is replaced by post hoc, ergo ante hoc, ergo…. In other words, if it comes later in the sequence, that means it preceded it, and if it preceded it, it must have influenced what followed, which we've just seen. I point this out to underline that the causality implied is always theoretical, because we're provided with 20/20 tunnel vision, not a rounded picture. The reverse order makes us think harder – while watching – but we're only given a few incidents to go on. Unless we're tipped off to the chronology in the case of 5 x 2, the first two scenes will cause considerable confusion: do they have brutal sex right after getting divorced? Has the divorce turned them on? No, the brutal sex was their last physical contact. The conventions of this technique take a bit of getting used to.

In the case of Irréversible, there is a sense of events sweeping away from the violent finale, like ripples from a tossed pebble, and any horrible experience might make one try to go back to consider how it could have been avoided. There's a kind of neurasthenic beauty in Memento, a noir so dark you can't follow it. Things are so much more interesting sometimes when we don't quite understand them, and the validity of the method is underlined by having the main character himself (traumatized by his wife's death) left almost completely without any short-term memory. It's a device that doesn't quite compute, since if he were really as impaired as is suggested, he could not really do much of anything and would just be wandering aimlessly about. Despite this and other more minor flaws, Memento has nonetheless become a kind of cult film and continues to be discussed and have a very active video shelf life. In fact since the details of scenes overlap and interconnect, it can be fun to look for flaws, and for successful (reverse) foreshadowings. Memento has a kind of hip angst-ridden style (keynoted by the lean, hyper star Guy Pierce, who was put on the map by this film) and while it's worth watching for the style, you also can't help viewing it as a kind of puzzle.

But the motive for Ozon's use of reverse order of events must be different. A marriage, even an unhappy one, is neither a crime nor a puzzle. Ozon's reversal of chronology, apart from the dubious motive of making mundane things appear more glamorous through a touch of confusion, must intend simply to inspire a kind of sad ruefulness on looking back, a sighing "Ah, if she had only known…" But still, one can't help wondering, Why: What's the point? And concluding, as one well might with Memento, that the piece would lack either the coherence or the interest to sustain itself if run forward instead of backward. Irréversible too, despite the power of its harrowing violent scenes, might seem awfully limited in scope if run forward.

Its "challenging" presentation makes some viewers regard 5 x 2 as complex and fascinating, its unpleasantness an indication of serious intent. The performances of the principals -- Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Stéphane Freiss -- have been praised and some have even claimed that the two actors look younger as the film progresses (though this is precisely what we do not see happening: they look just the same). There is nothing wrong with Tedeschi or Freiss, and as after viewing the fragmented-chronology 21 Grams of Alejandro González Iñárritu, one is reminded that actors often have to work out of sequence in shooting a film, so how it's finally put back together may not matter; the actors have the same job to do. All one can say is that, square as it may sound, normal sequence better allows us as viewers to observe the way a sense of character is accumulated through good acting. In 5 x 2, though we may feel we have a kind of worldly-wise understanding of the characters that grows as the film progresses, the lack of normal chronology does not lend itself to a perception of complex performances.

Hence Guy Pearce's edgy impersonation in Memento was more of an inspired shtick than a rounded characterization, and necessarily so. The action of 5 x 2 is not involving. Ozon's previous Swimming Pool was also gimmicky, and relied on dubious tricky revelations at the end to pull together its pseudo-mystery story. But it was beautiful to look at, while 5 x 2 is relatively drab and ugly. The husband is certainly a repulsive individual, and the wife is foolish and passive. The eternal Michael Lonsdale appears as Marion's father, who seems the image of mature love at the wedding, but snaps at his wife rather viciously in the hospital for making a fuss over Gilles' absence. Is this meant to be ironic (it is a bit funny), or is it just inconsistent?

Come to think of it, 5 x 2 is closer to reality than Ozon has ever been. After the more audience-friendly 8 Femmes and Swimming Pool, with their pretty women and glossy settings, it seems perhaps 5 x 2, despite its reverse chronology, is as straogjtfprward and un-gimmicky as the director is likely to get at this stage of his career. Yet it seems a misstep on the part of the director, who has moved away from the more aggressive, adventurous style of his earlier works toward a more bourgeois outlook and subject matter since his Fassbinder adaptation, Water Drops on Burning Rocks (Gouttes d'eau sur pierres brûlantes, 2000).

Why doesn't somebody film a story with backward chronology where the bad stuff actually comes at the end, so you start out with a nice situation and end up with what the people needed to get away from? Or do even hipsters really prefer a `happy' ending?

Shown at the Toronto Film Festival; no plan for US distribution known of, and with unknown faces and unappealing subject matter, that would seem unlikely; but one never knows. Distributed in France, Belgium, and Germany from September 2004.

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