Five Times Two (2004): A Portrait of a Marriage on the Terms of Endangerment
In Five Times Two (2004), the benefit of hindsight turns into a paralyzing terror. When the central couple walks into a hotel room after completing their divorce proceedings, we are totally unprepared for what is about to happen. It is as if someone has clutched our throats after promising to let us breathe freely. The harrowing incident we witness sets a precedent for future developments. The film gradually moves through a muddy cesspool of complicated desires, creating small puddles of trouble along the way.
Each step pulls us down deeper, drenched in the uncertainty of misguided communication. The unpredictability of human nature is on full display, especially in the domain which renders it vividly transparent – romantic relationships. It is not afraid to confront the uncomfortable truths about monogamy or the fruitless pursuit of longevity in the form of marriage. An earthquake can shake the foundations of the mightiest of the monuments, the tallest of the hills. The damage incurred is irrevocable. No matter how much we try to hide the fragile temperament of those bonds, a fissure often appears in the unlikeliest of places.
This film, directed by François Ozon, explores the genesis of the confusions and insecurities which permeate the flesh of fidelity. It shows the significant events in a french bourgeois couple’s life – divorce, an evening of candid confessions, the birth of their child, and the beginning of their courtship, in reverse order. This unconventional choice works well in favor of the content. We never have to acquiesce to a banal surface-level treatment of a traditional romance. In fact, the framework acts as an antithesis to it, providing us with no respite in its iconoclasm.
There are scenes where information is stacked within layers of subtext. The terms of the agreement are spouted by the solicitor in a monotonous, bland tone. It seems to be reasonable for both the parties involved, appearing to sail smoothly without creating much fuss. But, truth is never what it appears to be. Behind the closed curtain of amicable presentation of the severed ties lies a decrepit wall, whose skin is peeling off due to the harsh brutalities of nature and time. They may have started off well ( as we see in the last scenes), but as years went by, boredom settled in their increasingly joyless marriage. There is no linear arc of their relationship, just the significant moments which tell everything we need to know about its decline.
The way they respond indifferently (with a pinch of salt) to the distribution of parental duties is a facade. A piled-up dam of resentment overflows secretively in their nerves. But they do well to hide it. However, It spills out during their encounter in the bedroom when a love-making session ends up in sexual assault. They carry on normally afterward as if nothing has happened. But the impact of that abominable breach of trust and respect seeps into their conversation. They sit across from each other, only a few feet apart. But, the distance between them is insurmountable in reality. The inability of the man to grasp the gravity of his actions is juxtaposed with the timidity of the woman’s subdued denigration. The exchange is unbearably heavy with a strong undercurrent of quashed hopes and lingering bitterness. It ends on a pivotal note – the man asks if they can get back together. The woman morosely looks at him without saying anything and leaves. An air of discontent fills the room.
One night they hang out with the man’s brother and his gay partner. They admonish fidelity and monogamy without any sugarcoating, spelling out their distaste in full measure. She defends marriage by stressing trust and the gratification received from resisting temptation.
But their own filial bonds fail to live up to her high standards of expectations, as the man narrates the tale of his sordid indulgence in extramarital relations by participating in an orgy organized at a friend’s party. All the lurid details to which she was herself privy make her squirm and grind her teeth in contempt. This frank admission of guilt visibly hurts her. But, she keeps rolling the drinks, forcibly trying to contain her tears. The constraints of their marital duties have left her without much choice. When the guests leave, she expresses her happiness for his brother’s newfound love.
Contrary to her reaction, his husband is pessimistic about their future. She values trust and honesty, while he values sexual relations. Their disagreement is palpable. This gulf between them is widening progressively. We see some instances of this rupture, while the rest of their altercations is left open to imagination. However, these uncomfortable snippets form the basis of our understanding of their relationship. It’s a clear indication of the steep decline they would face later on in their lives.
The other instance we see is of their son’s birth. His absence at the hospital when she is going through labor demands an explanation. However, we are given none, nor is she. We just see two things. First is his disappointment at seeing such a fragile and barely alive body of his newborn. Second is his deliberate attempt to skip his wife’s labor. In both situations, distress swallows his face whole, compelling him to go out for a drive. Perhaps fear of parenthood has invaded his senses. He may have made himself believe he was ready for it. But, when the time came, he copped out. Unable to express his anxiety to anyone, he decided to evade the situation altogether. The reasons behind his actions are unclear, and his motivations are purposefully opaque. When his wife calls her from the hospital, reaffirming her love, he does not reciprocate as expected of a spouse. The marriage has received its first big blow. Soon it would turn into a slugfest, causing irreparable damage.
The other two instances are fairly straightforward. She faces the prospect of infidelity on her wedding night as the husband, dead drunk, falls asleep. When she visits the pond, it resembles the garden of Eden, where Eve (the wife in this film) is lured by a luscious temptation. A moment of weakness ensnares her, and she gives into it for a while, after her initial resistance, before pulling out at the right time. Each marriage has its own secrets, which are best left uncovered. The wife has herself crossed over the threshold into the realm of deceit and lies. Passing judgment on any of the two has become impossible. They both have failed each other in tremendously destructive ways. She embraces her husband in a proclamation of love immediately after making out with a stranger near the pond. Such ironical anecdotes put the whole institution of marriage under the radar.
Even the beginning of their relationship is fraught with foibles. The man was already with another woman when he met the woman. The constant criticisms spewed out by his girlfriend had grown over on him. He could no longer tolerate her. But, he was also afraid of calling it quits. It is at this point in time this woman enters his life. However, we know that nothing good will come out of it. The knowledge of their future makes us look at this courtship with a bittersweet lens – one which paints all that preceded the divorce in dark, remorseful colors. Upholding the values of monogamy is a battle in itself. The director is fairly successful in bringing out the mossy lichens residing deep in the ocean of marriage. It’s essential to our existence yet daunting and dangerous. A cautionary tale about the misfortunes that can befall a seemingly happy couple.
Italian maudlin operas playing in the backdrop of disturbing visuals are especially noteworthy. It creates a strange contradiction – our cultural celebration of the virtues of love complements the worst aspects of its imperfect application. Even the woman’s parents, whom she claims would never split, fight over past resentments and unresolved issues. There is no getting over the fact that being faithful to someone and maintaining the relationship for years requires a lot of effort. We cannot gloss over the messiness when it fails to deliver its promises. The Italian opera is a dream. A fictional exaggeration of romantic aspirations. In this film, we see the hurdles which come in the way of its pursuit. An empty chalice that we want to believe is filled.
Sometimes things do not go our way. The couple had to part on widely different terms, although those seemed amicable in the first go. When a glass window breaks apart, all we can do is pick up the scattered pieces. We may painstakingly put it back together, but the cracks would never vanish. They remain there till the end. But, it should not discourage us from letting the window open, back in its place. Only a silent acceptance of the fact that no creation is perfect. There can be myriad ways to approach the subject matter of love. And each would have its own limitations. As Bertrand Rusell once said, “Love can flourish only as long as it is free and spontaneous; it tends to be killed by the thought of duty. To say that it is your duty to love so-and-so is the surest way to cause you to hate him or her.” Sometimes, the duty has to be forsaken to let a new flower bloom in the place of a withered one. Otherwise, all we will be left with is a stifling residence of nothingness – a barren meadow without any flowers.