Bad-boy writer-director François Ozon is drawn to crime stories and murder mysteries, but he doesn’t make films that are likely to please traditional fans of those genres. His two previous outings, 8 Women and Swimming Pool, were exercises in, respectively, campy period melodrama and erotically charged mystification. His latest, 5×2, updates Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage and Pinter’s Betrayal by way of Memento. The corpse discovered in the opening scene is that of a Paris couple’s brief marriage; the movie then proceeds to plumb the past in search of a killer who can never be conclusively identified.
Not that Ozon and co-writer Emmanuèle Bernheim don’t present an obvious suspect: Gilles (Stéphane Freiss), the classic selfish, unsupportive husband. When he and Marion (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) are introduced, listening to a lawyer clinically recite the terms of their divorce, both are calm and reasonable. They’ll have joint custody of their young son, Nicolas, but the boy will live with Marion, who’ll not receive alimony. The ex-couple then adjourns to a hotel room for a farewell screw, but Marion changes her mind, so Gilles rapes her—anally, it would appear. “Do you want to try again?” he asks. Not answering, she leaves the room and strides down the hallway into the future.
That’s not where 5×2 is headed, however. The four remaining episodes journey backward to notable moments in Marion and Gilles’ relationship. First (or fourth) is the small party where Gilles reveals a moment of bisexual abandon to his gay brother and the brother’s much-younger lover. Then comes the day of Nicolas’ birth, which involves a medical emergency that Gilles can’t bring himself to face. Next is the couple’s wedding, after which Marion is the one who—possibly—turns wanton. Finally, there’s the opening act, in which Gilles, accompanied by then-girlfriend Valérie (Géraldine Pailhas), meets Marion at a Club Med– like resort in Sardinia. (It’s hard to keep an Ozon flick away from the water.) As the story backtracks and the relationship becomes smoother, so do the film’s story and look. Harsh psychological drama yields to romance-novel serendipity, and the final scene offers a vista whose travel-brochure idealization happens to be physically (or at least chronologically) impossible.
Ozon’s refusal to “solve” the mystery of a failed marriage shows a certain integrity. There’s no one clue that explains what happened to Marion and Gilles other than the final episode’s hint that contemporary bourgeois Westerners are always seeking novelty. (In other words: goodbye, Valérie; hello, Marion.) Yet the film’s structure seems to promise more than that. If there’s no particular moment that explains what went wrong, why sift through the couple’s backstory in search of it?
Here’s one appropriately ironic answer: Ozon was seeking novelty. Or perhaps the director meant to tweak another French cinematic hellion, Gaspar Noé, and his brutal 2002 film, Irreversible. That brilliantly staged but philosophically banal provocation went into reverse in order to present the absolute corruption of existence; 5×2 takes a parallel course and finds only mundanity. If Ozon’s film means to comment on Noé’s, that would also explain why the former’s scenario is so derrière-centric. Both movies turn on instances of a man anally raping a woman, and 5×2 includes two moments that turn the spotlight on Gilles’ butt as well. Then again, maybe the motif is simply a thematic pun on the film’s ass-backward structure.
A central difference between the two movies is that where Noé shows practically everything, Ozon reveals almost nothing. 5×2’s five episodes frame a series of unseen intervals in which many things must have happened or been said. The movie is almost devoid of the rationalizations and recriminations that are Bergman’s and Pinter’s main course; these must be inferred from Bruni-Tedeschi and Freiss’ pained expressions. This reticence saps 5×2’s effectiveness as any kind of mystery, but for viewers willing to interpose their own romantic disillusionments for the central couple’s, the film will likely be a fine mirror.
In 5×2, Gilles partially redeems himself in a moment of tenderness with his son. In Steven Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds, divorced New Jersey dockworker Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) has it a lot tougher: He has to fight his way through an entire B-movie to prove himself a worthy dad.
Although Josh Friedman and David Koepp’s script returns to H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel for many details, this War of the Worlds is largely a homage to George Pal and Byron Haskin’s cinematic version of 1953. The special-effects budget was obviously vast, but the film’s scope is deliberately limited. There are only a few crowd scenes, and one long sequence takes place entirely in the basement of a farmhouse, where Ray; his shell-shocked daughter, Rachel (Dakota Fanning); and an addled “resistance fighter” (Tim Robbins) hide from the aliens that have invaded the tri-state area (and, apparently, the entire planet). This is clearly the Spielberg of Raiders of the Lost Ark, not Schindler’s List. It might even be part of the concept that the movie is the director’s first to run at less than two hours since Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
There’s not a lot of story in the 116-minute saga. Ray is basically the standard Cruise character: boyish, self-assured, and in sync with manly machines—though he’s also a flop with women and children. Teenage Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and prepubescent Rachel aren’t happy when their remarried, pregnant mom (Miranda Otto) drops them at Dad’s for a weekend visitation. The kids barely have time to register their resentment, however, before what appears to be a lightning storm becomes an alien invasion. Ray decides to return Robbie and Rachel to their mother—a trip that leads through various devastated suburban and rural landscapes on the way to Boston, home to Ray’s former in-laws (played by Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, stars of the 1953 film). Along the way, naturally, Ray and his offspring encounter many hazards and dilemmas, photographed in deep shadows or hot, halo-effect light by Spielberg regular Janusz Kaminksi. If War of the Worlds plays out a familiar story predictably, at least it looks fresh and edgy.
Just as in ’50s sci-fi flicks, the science is dubious. The film retains Wells’ original solution to the problem of battling aliens of hugely superior firepower, a development that’s telegraphed in the prologue (narrated by the ubiquitous Morgan Freeman). Of course, Earthlings have lots of technology that didn’t exist in Wells’ era, which the movie disables with electromagnetic pulses—except when it’s convenient for certain gizmos to work. The ways of the aliens are equally murky. They want human bodies for their plans, but in the early stages of the invasion they vaporize them. The invaders pilot elaborate attack vehicles outfitted with tendrils that can probe hard-to-reach spaces, yet sometimes they leave these machines, apparently just so we can get a better look at them. Not that this view is a revelation: The creatures are the customary hybrid of insect, crustacean, and ectomorphic geek, with an added bit of Venus’ flytrap.
Thematically, War of the Worlds is a major revision of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., which counseled childlike trust and wonder as the proper responses to extraterrestrial callers. The movie could hardly avoid references to 9/11, but there are only a few, notably a shot of makeshift posters seeking news of missing loved ones. (There’s also a glimpse of corpses in a river, an image that suggests Rwanda more than the aftermath at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon.) And the film’s anti-alien politics are decidedly muted. Spielberg’s real concern isn’t the threat from beyond, whether Afghanistan or Alpha Centauri, but rather the necessity of accepting adult responsibility.
While thousands die, some gruesomely, what matters is that Ray grows up. He learns that responsibility is harsh but that kids must be protected by any means necessary. This lesson supposedly reflects Spielberg’s mature triumph over his long string of I-don’t-wanna-grow-up parables. He’s not so mature, however, that War of the Worlds isn’t yet another tribute to the pleasures of crummy old adventure pictures for boys.CP