5X2: Interview with French Director Francois Ozon

5X2 is a story told backwards. Was that concept your starting point

No. initially I wanted to make another film about a couple in love. I’d already explored the subject in Water Drops on Burning Rocks, my adaptation of a play Fassbinder wrote when he was 19. His adolescent vision of love was cruel and already rife with disillusion, which I liked.

With 5×2, I wanted to take another look at love from the vantage point of my current experience, without getting bogged down in explanations. It seems to me a bit facile to say that routine is what kills love. It may contribute, but often it’s little more than a surface symptom masking very real divergences between two people. The true reasons run deeper. I wanted to film important moments in the life of a couple, and not simply provide a routine as the guideline.

Writing the story backwards

I was struck by what Jane Campion did with Two Friends, a TV drama that tells the story of a friendship backwards. The two girls separate at the beginning, and the film takes us back to their first meeting. Stories told backwards often generate a kind of suspense: you’re waiting for the final revelation. In Campion’s film the sole revelation was that the two women did not come from the same social background. I was touched by this approach to friendship, which has us reliving the relationship backwards to the point where we almost forget that the two characters are destined to part ways. You’re given a space within which to believe in their friendship again. This immediately stuck me as an ideal way of telling a love story.

When a love affair comes to an end and you reflect back on it, you concentrate essentially on the most recent events, those that culminated in the break-up. So starting at the end and working gradually backwards to the first encounter seemed like a good way of attaining a true, lucid reading of a couple’s story. As we go back in time, the form becomes lighter, almost idealized. I wanted the audience to see the range of different emotions two people experience in the course of their life together: indifference, disgust, dread, jealousy, rivalry, closeness, attraction I also wanted each episode to reflect a different style of cinema. We start with an intense psychological drama, and then move into the second part, which is more socially anchored, in the tradition of French cinema. For the wedding, American films were my reference, and for the couple’s initial encounter I aimed for something along the lines of Rohmer’s summer films. I wanted the film to evolve in such a way that the tone and issues would change from chapter to chapter. It was amusing to open the film with the most powerful scenes and see whether the dramatic progression would function as we worked our way backwards. On set, my joke was: “we’re starting with Bergman, we’ll end with Lelouch”.

In Gaspard Noe’s Irreversible, happiness is destroyed by an outside event, but your film implies it is an intrinsic part of existence

Yes, and for that reason I didn’t want to overemphasize significant events. When there is a peak in the action, like when Marion sleeps with the American or when Gilles fails to show up for the birth of his child, I tried to treat these events inconspicuously, so the audience wouldn’t say: “Ah, this is the reason they split up.” The film needed to remain open and avoid explanations, despite its structure. The audience fills in the blanks between episodes by drawing on their own experiences.

What to put in and what to leave out

During the writing, shooting and editing. Essentially the goal was to avoid explaining the relationship too much, eliminate explanatory dialogue. In the dinner scene, Gilles was initially clearly portrayed as unemployed, while his wife had a career. He was basically a househusband, looking after their child. But that was too harsh on the character. It made him seem depressed compared to his energetic, feisty wife, and this could have been interpreted as the reason for their break-up, it was too specific. The challenge was to use the backwards storytelling technique without falling into psychoanalysis. We may be learning more details about the characters, but in fact as the film progresses the couple’s relationship becomes more complex and opaque, it takes on an abstract quality. I didn’t want to reduce this story of separation to: “it was bound to end badly.” Of course, the relationship does come to an end, but for me that’s not a tragedy. The important thing is to have experienced it. I even hope that the last shot of the film leaves people with the desire to relive the couple’s story, to believe in it again. I was compelled by this paradox between the story’s backwards construction, with its dark, “irreversible” quality, and the progression toward an ending that, in appearance, is luminous even optimistic.

Were the number and nature of the different chapters determined from the outset

At one point I wondered if we might not need a sixth chapter, between the birth of the child and the wedding, to illustrate a moment of happiness the couple shares before their son is born. But then I realized that this moment of pure happiness had occurred during the wedding, the dance scene embodies it. And I have to admit, a couple’s bliss doesn’t really inspire me. I have a hard time writing a scene like that without giving it a darker edge.

Italian songs as interlude between scenes

Originally the film was going to be called “Nous Deux” (“The Two of Us”), an ironic title that is also a reference to a magazine in France. I had filmed several covers of the magazine for the opening credits but I didn’t use them in the end. However, I still needed something light to offset the darkness of certain scenes, and Italian love songs came to mind, with their over-the-top sentimentality. In the film, it is the man who suffers most, so I selected songs sung by men. Unlike French love songs, the most beautiful and moving Italian love songs are often sung by men.

You shot the film’s beginning and then interrupted the shoot for five months

It was a luxury to work that way. You start filming, stop, write some more on the basis of the first shoot, begin editing and then go off and film again. It’s a very fertile method and with this film it seemed all the more appropriate as I wrote the first three parts very quickly, then found I was blocked, especially about the initial encounter. As I shot the first part, I had a vague notion that when they met, Marion would be mourning a boyfriend who had died. But inserting something so major at the end would totally alter the way people interpret the film. The long break kept me from falling prey to such easy screenwriting solutions. It also gave the actors time to prepare themselves physically so they could look younger.

Breaking a shoot into two parts with Under the Sand

I initially felt I would need to explain Bruno Kremer’s disappearance in the second part of Under the Sand. But as I shot the first part, I realized that Charlotte Rampling had such a powerful fictional presence that I could afford not to explain his disappearance at all. All I had to do was open up certain avenues of explanation and let the audience seek their own answers in the mystery of Charlotte’s face. 5X2 functions along similar lines. If we believe in Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and Stephane Freiss as a couple, then we can watch them evolve in relatively ordinary situations. Their chemistry was vital. They had to carry the film, so that I could move into something lighter and more casual in the second part.

Casting the film

My first instinct was to go for stars, but then I realized I needed actors who were less familiar, to facilitate audience identification. Finding the right couple was more important than having this or that specific actor. To make my characters’ shared experience believable, I needed two people who fit together naturally, two people with chemistry and an easy familiarity between them. It’s a simple process: you put two actors side by side and say, “Yeah, that works.” For the screen test, I used a scene from Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. Liv Ullmann’s character brings her husband the divorce papers. They argue over who gets the clock. Both of them are involved with someone else. He’s sick, she’s about to go away. But they make love again, and their closeness returns. They are still very attached. It’s a fascinating scene, because it gives the actors an opportunity to explore a succession of varied and profound emotions.

Stephane Freiss and Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi

I’d seen Stephane in a play by Yasmina Reza, at the theatre. He was both charming and unsettling. When I screen tested him, I immediately sensed he would have a big, introspective quality on screen. He’s very masculine and yet somewhat absent, he seems fragile, there is something almost childlike in his eyes. As for Valeria, I felt that despite her apparent vulnerability, which is overexploited in films, she could be a powerful force. I thought it would be interesting to explore this duality.
She’s played many parts requiring her to downplay her femininity and her beauty, where she’ll adopt neurotic postures, walk all hunched over and hide behind her hair. In this film, I wanted her to open up physically and feel beautiful.

Time is suspended, as it does at the end of Under the Sand

Starting from a specific action (Shall we take a swim), the shot acquires symbolic meaning. I wanted an image that would call to mind those French teenage magazines about boyfriends and girlfriends like “Nous Deux”, with the lovers going off into the sunset. The rest of the film avoids such imagery. But because of everything we’ve seen up to this point, this rather clichd shot takes on a deeper meaning. It is nourished by what has taken place before. And it seemed important to let the shot linger, to give the audience time to ponder what they’ve seen and run the story back through their minds in the other direction.

Francois Ozon’s Filmography

2004 5×2
2002 8 WOMEN