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April 06, 2007

DVD Journal: "5x2"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --


Because I was such a fan of Francois Ozon's "Swimming Pool" and "Water Drops on Burning Rocks," I'd been looking forward to catching up with his recent "5x2," an episodic marriage drama that starts with a couple's divorce and then moves backwards in time.

Verdict: it's a nicely-done exercise, no more. It has been discussed as being half Bergman's "Scenes from a Marriage" and half Pinter's "Betrayal," and that's about right: It's an analysis of one relationship's stages of romance, tension, arousal, misery, betrayal, and failure.

What makes it distinctive is its determination to thwart interpretation and frustrate your desire for answers. The thing you anticipate with this kind of backwards narrative is learning how and why everything went wrong. (Mysteries often work this way too: They move forward by uncovering the past.)

So why did the marriage come apart? And how did the relationship become impossible? How can you not want to find out the answers to these questions? But here, there's no way to tell what they are. You expect that the episodes being presented will reveal hints: they don't. You anticipate that the arrangement of the episodes will convey a larger truth: it doesn't.

At first I watched the film wondering if I was just being dumb. Then the penny dropped and my dim brain awoke to the fact that "5x2" is one of those so-fis-ti-kated movies that isn't going to present a key to its mystery, let alone build to a revelation or (heaven forbid) a climax.

So I shifted into appreciator-of-modernist-art mode -- hey, I can do that! -- and ... well, I still found the film unsatisfying. Though I often adore art that leaves a lot to the imagination, leaving everything open to intepretation was a little much even for me. The events the film portrays don't just seem barely-linked, but tenaciously (if hyper-subtly) arbitrary. It's all very tantalizing, and then it isn't any longer.

If you were in an uncharitable mood, you could say that "5x2" is a gay man's -- Ozon's -- doomy view of straight marriage as a hopeless mess. Women and men will never understand each other; their drives are at such odds that it's miraculous they ever cross paths. Why does the husband seem so withholding? Why is the wife such a weeper? And what, in any case, did they see in each other in the first place? I was OK with the fact that the story and characters didn't come to anything, really I was. But I was less pleased by the fact that the nothing the film came to was as un-resonant as it was.

All that said, I sat through "5x2" in a fairly pleasant state and even found the film piquant. That's because of the commitment of the actors (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and Stephane Freiss), and because of the stylishness of Ozon's work. He makes the film a miracle of concision, design, wit, and paradox. It may be nothing more than an accumulation of scenes, but what exquisite scenes they are, and what a gorgeous pattern they make. (He punctuates his quietly elegant scenes with blasts of over-the-top Italian pop songs juste for the sake of contrast.) Ozon's talent for color, light, fabric, hair, and composition are all on full display. As small-scale and exquisite as "5x2" is -- and it's like an Eric Rohmer movie, only even more jewel-like -- the filmmaking still has a poetic bravura.

So: If you're in the mood for a few hours of French Cinema, there are worse movies you could choose. All that said: Why not catch up with "Water Drops on Burning Rocks" instead? Now there's a pansexual chamber dramedy with a frisky and absurdist kick. (And featuring a 19 year old Ludivine Sagnier to boot.)

What seemed to me to have a little more life than the film itself was the making-of featurette included on the DVD, a 20ish-minute thing that focuses entirely on Ozon directing the film's wedding sequence. Scurrying around, manipulating extras and actors as a painter might manipulate pigments (or as a child might play with his toys), Ozon is a boyishly handsome whirlwind. Tending towards the portly, full of himself, arch, and very much the apple of his own eye, he's a cross between Orson Welles and a temperamental department-store window dresser.

And that was it for the featurette. Just the one scene, just a grab-bag of onscene videoclips. It was probably shot all in one day. It had no voice-over, and it included only a few teeny-tiny efforts at interviews. The credits and editing might have been done in iMovie.

The funny thing was how enjoyable I found the featurette -- I think precisely because it was so casual and nothing-special. (When you discuss French art it's impossible to avoid using the phrase "precisely because." I wonder why.) It lacked something, but that was fine. It was nothing much, but at the same time it was more than enough. I watched the making-of featurette for "5x2" thinking: Why would anyone want anything more than this?

Which left me wondering about the "making-of" featurettes on American DVDs ... About American films ... About America more generally. Why are we so prone to punching everything up? Our making-of featurettes are often as overdone as our movie features.

Is it our fault? Is it that we demand a lot of hoopla and whoopdedo? Or is it our culture's fault; perhaps we're simply making do with what we're being fed -- American corporations seem to add sugar and graphics wherever and whenever possible, after all. So, my question for the day: Why do Americans demand so damn much in the way of energy and production value in their entertainment? Even our casual entertainments usually try too damn hard.

The Wife and I often wonder about these questions. Our best guess at an answer is a two-parter: 1) Americans are terrified of being cheated. We're culturally insecure, we tend towards the broad and obvious, and we want quantity for our money. Corporate whizzbangery, like much American food, may not be any good but it will sure fill you up. And 2) Americans like seeing people try hard. We just do. We like demonstrations of effort; we like to see the sweat. We want proof that our entertainment dollar is being worked-for, dammit.

Here's Ozon's website. In this interview he elaborates on his desire to defy interpretation. Here are some trailers for "5x2." Here's one for "Water Drops." Here's the scrumptious trailer for "Swimming Pool."



posted by Michael at April 6, 2007


It is nice to come over to 2Blowhards, put your hat up, and just take a recommendation to go.

I just reserved 8 Women and Water Drops from the library.

I saw Under the Sand and Swimming Pool and I liked the slow power of both. Under the Sand I found particularly fascinating because it's rare to see a character who spends the movie struggling not to lose it, and fails. I have no qualms with happy endings. But, French cinema fills in the holes that are left by my American films experience.

After all, I've been getting my happy endings in real life, because I'm lucky. The movies is the place where I get to feel the at least as important experiences of loss. I remember there was a saying a couple generations ago in judging movies, "No tears, no good". You never hear that sentiment anymore.

Still, while the eroticism of Swimming Pool did good things for my wife, I wasn't entirely taken in. I'm more of a Jess Franco man (thanks for the recommendation!). Here's one back -- It's soft core, but my lord does it have attitude!

As for why Americans demand bombastic movie experiences that jump out of the screen and thump you over the head, I have two thoughts.

One is that I have a concept of where you are psychically seated in relation to the screen. For films like Swimming Pool, you can't enjoy them unless you let them draw you in. There must be some sense in which you locate your viewing self out of your body in the movie. Observing, feeling, treating the action as if it was as real as your own dream.

The normal American way of viewing can't possibly be that, because if you watch "GrindHouse" in that mode, you'll suffer damage. No. We are far back in our seats, and make the movie come out to us. So, given this distance, a lightening bug in Swimming Pool would cast the same light as a car explosion in "Grindhouse".

The other thought on why our temperment is biased against ambiguity:

"People don't read poetry because uncertainty is associated with punishment." Mark Wallace, Something Happened and Besides I Wasn't There

The Holzbachian

Posted by: The Holzbachian on April 7, 2007 7:48 AM

Wow, I never heard of Ozon, thanks for intro'ing me to him. I'll check some DVDs out.

About the gay doom n gloom re: heterosex*, maybe, I haven't seen the movie, but from what I've read of Ozon, could he not just be a Total French Cynic about all human relationships?

*Andrew Sullivan flogs this horse repeatedly and I wonder why no one has ever called him out.

Posted by: diana on April 7, 2007 1:07 PM


humble suggestion: checkout Daniel Larison @ Eunomia for interesting thoughts re: Sullivan

Posted by: playrink on April 8, 2007 11:21 AM

Your thoughts on Americans "trying too hard" and "punching everything up" applies to something else I was thinking about lately -- the Oklahoma City Bombing memorial. (I heard somebody recommending that another person visit it.) When my wife and I visited the Memorial, my impressions ran along these lines: "This is way overdone," "why put all this ridiculous, symbolic crap here when a small, concrete marker would have been more dignified," "McVeigh would have been very pleased that this lavish spectacle was built on the site of the bombing."

And pondering why the thing had to be so big and lavish, I came to the same conclusion as you (about the featurettes): we Americans like to see effort. We like big, lavish displays. We like pompous symbolism. Something small won't do. Who cares if it has the effect, in the OKC memorial's case, of essentially glorifying the terrorism. Our hunger for operatic spectacle trumps any considerations of taste and decorum.

Posted by: James on April 8, 2007 5:22 PM

Well, a market factor, with Hollywood, is that very big budget movies need to succeed in foreign markets to max their profits, sometimes even to break even. Whizz-bang and special effects translate better across cultures. Anyone can understand a big, cool explosion.

At a deeper level, I think the combination of the sheer size of the nation and the constant waves of new immigration have meant that we don't have a single, unified set of cultural attitudes. So there is a sense in which one is doing cross-cultural translation just in trying to appeal to the entire American market. For this reason, Americans have a unique genius in cross-cultural mass marketing to the lowest common denominator. Not just in movies, but in food (look at how fast food amps up basic flavors for universal appeal), in advertising, even clothing.

Posted by: MQ on April 9, 2007 3:53 AM

"Swimming Pool": It's a softcore thriller. As a thriller, it fails comprehensively because it's solution is illogical and hesitantly put forward. So recommend it as a softcore feature only.

Posted by: jult52 on April 9, 2007 9:52 AM

Holzbachian -- Let me know how you enjoy 'em! I wasn't a fan of "8 Women" myself, but have friends who liked it a lot ...

Diana - Yeah, Total French Cynicism probably accounts for a lot, like maybe 90% of his attitudes towards marriage. But there's an extra-special little soupcon of hopelessness that he sells that, judging from acquaintances, seems characteristically gay. Which is fine by me.

James -- That's really smart, and I'm sorry to hear that the OK City memorial has that effect. Much of the carrying-on over the WTC site has struck me as ... well, obviously not overdone since it was such a tragedy. But unnecessarily undignified, or something like that. I wonder if a lot of people are convinced that the thing to do in all cases in to vent in public, and then vent some more.

MQ -- "Oone is doing cross-cultural translation just in trying to appeal to the entire American market." That's really smart!

JT -- Didn't enjoy it, eh? Fair enough, interesting, etc. But I wonder if you haven't got its genre a little misidentified. Isn't it better understood as a metaphysical-erotic puzzle picture crossed with a thriller than as "a thriller"?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 9, 2007 10:44 AM

Michael : The solution didn't make any sense. It's one of those thrillers where the writers haven't gone to the effort of devising a beilevable solution. They get a big black mark for that one.

MQ - Interesting post.

Posted by: jult52 on April 9, 2007 3:54 PM

I loved "Swimming Pool", imperfect but with some nice tiny scenes. Interested in this movie, but "5X2"- what an unsexy title!

Diana above wrote: "About the gay gloom & doom re: heterosex" referencing Andrew Sullivan..
what do gay people have to do with this film?

I only discovered this site recently, and have enjoyed it immensely, reading through the archives. Really superb thought and writing.

But then persistently it comes up- forgive me for asking, but are gay people not welcome here? Does this site presume that people who read it are somehow conservative, i.e. dislike uppity gays, etc.?

It reminds me of reading James Lileks- I am so enjoying his post about vanishing 20th century street signs in Minneapolis, then he'll suddenly write a sentence about how the gays are going to mandate gay marriage soon. Tongue-in-cheek, but a big bucket of resentment thrown my way, gratuitously.

So what's the story with this site? Is there a common bond among the regulars I ought to know? Is this place just for conservatives?

Ps.I have arguments via email with Andrew Sullivan all the time- disagree with him all the time- he's exasperating, actually. But he's not anti-hetero in any way, I can assure you.

Posted by: Deschanel on April 9, 2007 8:19 PM

JT -- Fair enough!

Deschanel -- Hey, nice to learn you've enjoyed dropping by, and very good to have you. What leaves you though with the impression though that anyone here has any trouble with gays? As for Ozon, he's very gay and very out about it, for whatever that's worth.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 10, 2007 12:04 AM

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