When we first see Marion (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) and Gilles (Stephane Friess) in the new François Ozon film, ''5x2," they're getting divorced. It's a low-key scene set in a brightly lit office, and the two can barely meet each other's eyes, let alone those of the distracted bureaucrat stamping the forms. Then they go off to a hotel for one last tumble -- his idea, and it's a bad one -- and we witness the chasm that divides the couple wrench violently wider.
Most movies let their lovers meet cute in the beginning. Ozon starts with them unhitching miserably and works backward from there. In a quintet of slowly unfolding sequences, ''5x2" backpedals through the story of Gilles and Marion, pausing at key moments along the way and challenging us to define what pulls a couple together or what drives them apart.
The problem isn't that telling a story in reverse is a fairly unoriginal gambit at this point -- movies such as ''Memento" and ''Irreversible" and novels including Martin Amis's ''Time's Arrow" have been here and done this. The problem is that they've done it better. ''5x2" is a lesser work coming from the director of ''Swimming Pool" and ''Under the Sand," and while, like those films, it flirts intriguingly with the unknowable, what it shows us of the knowable isn't terribly interesting.
At its best, the movie suggests that labeling one person or the other as a relationship's villain is shortsighted. We come away from that hotel room quickie detesting Gilles, who with his lean face and close-cropped beard seems a cruel, self-pitying fox. Nor does he come off much better a few scenes later (or earlier), when he leaves Marion in the lurch as she's prematurely giving birth to their son. For half of the film, we're invited to see Marion as a victim -- a solid, intelligent woman who unaccountably makes excuses for her infantile swine of a husband.
Then we spool back to their wedding day, and suddenly our view of Marion grows extremely complicated. The final sequence of ''5x2" -- that is to say the very first -- is set at a Club Med retreat to which Gilles has gone with his longtime girlfriend Valerie (Geraldine Pailhas), a chic, judgmental cold fish who clearly has outgrown her love for him; the appearance of the hesitantly kind Marion presents both with an alternative.
Does Valerie purposely throw her lover to this new catch? Is Gilles's dinner-party anecdote about an orgy he and Marion attended true? Is he even the father of the couple's son? ''5x2" refuses to answer, and, anyway, Ozon's point seems to be that moral compromise is so deeply intertwined with the human experience as to be invisible to his characters. We all cheat in ways we can't begin to fathom, and thus our unions are built on sand.
Not much of a date movie, obviously, and taken with the other movies mentioned above, ''5x2" suggests that reverse narratives can only end with impotence and sadness. Ozon leaves the dots so unconnected, however, that our desire for simple drama is frustrated. When did Gilles turn from an affable man into a monster? How did Marion come to the pivotal moment of the movie and her life? ''5x2" suggests that such turning points are unimportant in themselves -- Ozon gives us their residue and says that's enough -- but, not to put too fine a point on it, he's wrong. Gilles and Marion may be more than the sum of their regrets, but because their creator hasn't done the math, they remain touching stick figures.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.