Water has long been an inspirational lubricant for the arch French auteur Francois Ozon, its shimmering surface covering an ocean of sensual mystery, into which characters may dive, or be sucked. In his spine- tingling short film Regarde la mer, a woman and her child are cast adrift on idyllic shores, from whose balmy seas emerges a seductive and deadly monster. The plot of Sous le Sable pivots around an inexplicable episode in which a wife sunbathes on a beach, while her husband goes for a swim and promptly vanishes. The hidden depths of Swimming Pool were similarly emblematic of an eerie murder mystery that blurred the line between fact and fiction, and in which the "crime" may be nothing more than light dancing upon the water of a fractured mind.
Ozon's latest aquatic puzzle, 5x2 (Five Times Two), ends with a picture-postcard image of a beautiful young man and woman swimming out to sea, illuminated by the amber rays of a burning sunset. The scene is rich in the cod iconography of archetypal romance, yet for Ozon it is inevitably laced with ominous dread. Indeed, far from being a "happy ending", this chocolate-box finale offers an ironic prelude to an impending catastrophe that we have already seen played out in all its gory glory. Like Gaspar Noe's Irreversible, 5x2 ("or how to live with someone else: five moments in the life of a modern couple . . .") tells its story backwards, presenting five vignettes in the devolution of a relationship that starts - and therefore ends - with the violent consummation of a divorce as legally neat as it is emotionally bloody.
Described by its writer/director as a film that moves stylistically from the uptight anguish of Ingmar Bergman to the sunny optimism of Claude Lelouch, 5x2 is a confoundingly enigmatic affair that will frustrate those in search of tidy narrative resolution. Punctuating his rewound segments with the sentimental strains of Italian love songs, Ozon asks the audience to dredge its own memories and imaginations to fill in the gaping holes between each phase of the relationship. It's a task that requires a considerable leap of faith - though with performances as commanding as those of Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and Stephane Freiss, such devotions should come easily enough.
Both actors are magnificent as the couple whose inverted affair sees them trans-form from shell-shocked divorcees to wide-eyed lovers-to-be. Changing far more than just their hairstyles, the pair actually appear to shape-shift as they embody the various stages of Marion and Gilles's dance of love and death - it is hard not to imagine that the film was shot over a period of years rather than months. As Marion observes in those enchantingly melancholic opening/closing moments, the sea looks tranquil enough, but it carries deadly undercurrents. The same is also true of Ozon's deceptively inconsequential anti-romance, which leaves the audience wanting to know more, while perhaps wishing that it knew less.
There are several coincidental parallels between 5x2 and Don't Move, an overwrought Italian melodrama adapted from Margaret Mazzantini's novel by her husband, Sergio Castellitto. Both films use a flashback structure to chronicle the collapse of a marriage foretold; both feature pivotal scenes in which a husband abandons his wife at the moment of childbirth; and both wander uncomfortably into sub-Straw Dogs territory in their wilful blurring of the line between rape and desire. Unlike 5x2, however, Don't Move leaves none of its loose ends untied as it contrives a gnomic parable of despair and redemption that aspires to some- thing akin to religion, but often comes closer to soap opera.
Penelope Cruz has won several European awards for her portrayal of a bow-legged Albanian chambermaid who takes up with a hangdog surgeon (the star and director Castellitto) when his car and marriage break down simultaneously. He gets drunk and assaults her; she responds by turning his world on its head.
Viewed from the confessional perspective of the doctor whose teenage daughter's life hangs in the balance, Don't Move is heavily laden with all-too-neat split-narrative devices: two lives, two loves, two pregnancies, two life-and-death battles, two possible outcomes. There are moments of raw appeal, thanks largely to Cruz's almost comedically ballsy performance, which perfectly matches the ripe tenor of the writing. But as the clunky spiritual symbols accumulate and this male fan-tasy turns its eyes heavenwards, one is reminded of Lars von Trier's ghastly, misogynistic Breaking the Waves - minus the irony. The result is angst-ridden and histrionic; sporadically engaging, but in serious need of restraint.