Interview with François Ozon
FIVE TIMES TWO is a story told backwards. Was that concept your initial 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 5x2, 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, and that's what I was interested in. I wanted to film important moments in the life of a couple, and not simply provide a routine as the guideline.
What made you decide to write 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, 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".
As in the film IRREVERSIBLE, your starting point is a break-up and you make your way back to the original bliss. But in Gaspard Noé's film, happiness is destroyed by an outside event, whereas your film implies this 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.
You needed to give enough detail to draw the audience in, but not too much, so that the story remained in some way universally relevant. When did you decide 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.
The separation, the dinner with friends, the birth of the child, the wedding, the first encounter… 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.
And the idea of using Italian songs as an interlude between scenes?
Originally the film was going to be called "Nous Deux" ("The Two of Us"), an ironic title which 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 beginning of the film and then interrupted the shoot for five months before returning to shoot the other chapters. Why?
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.
You had already tried 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 OF 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.
FIVE TIMES TWO 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. How did you go about 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.
Did any particular films they'd been in draw you to 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.
In the last shot, time seems 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 clichéd 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.
Interview with Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi
FIVE TIMES TWO is built around five moments in the life of a couple, Marion and Gilles, told backwards in time. What do these five moments mean to you?
They are the different stages of a love story. At every stage, I feel that François was able to guide us to the heart of what mattered: the heart of what it means to meet someone, to get married, to have children, to separate. Stephane Freiss and I play real human beings who are also archetypes. He is Man. I am Woman.
How does one go about playing a character who is also an archetype?
I think I felt rather abstract, because we weren't given many details about our characters' lives or their pasts. But I really got the impression we were incarnating Man and Woman, with all their beauty, and all their ugliness. I felt I had to work on paring myself down, eliminating the impurities. François was asking me to change physically and psychologically. It was as if, each time, only a few notes of the melody were required.
How did you meet François Ozon?
He said, "I want to offer you the part, but I need to know whether you will agree to look beautiful. That's the condition." Which was a bit odd, it was a crude question, but I didn't mind. Looking beautiful basically means allowing yourself to look beautiful. Not hiding. Not being ashamed. Not staring at the floor. Holding your head high. I've often played characters who were victims of their neuroses, or of unkind men. François removed that crutch. I wasn't going to be a victim in this movie. I was going to be a woman, with normal, human needs and a huge appetite for happiness. I felt that very strongly in the few pages François gave us at the beginning. That's what really made me want to do the film. The dynamics of the part corresponded to what I was looking for in my work and in my life at that moment. The music was right, it was what I wanted to hear. I wanted to do the film in the same way Marion wanted happiness.
Were you apprehensive at all?
Yes. It's scary because it's new, you're not used to it. But FIVE TIMES TWO is a film I accepted with no hesitation. When François asked me to lose weight or dye my hair blonde, I might've worried that he found me ugly. But I didn't, because I sensed his affection for me. He saw me in a way that made me feel right. I felt that even my defects were interesting, my emotions were welcome. He gave me my place. It's not that my place was large or small, but it was mine, and it was right for the character and the film. François has a particular aesthetic which enables him to film everyday life without superficiality. I find that interesting. I love the way he frames his shots. When I saw UNDER THE SAND, I was looking for a cameraman and DP for my own film. I immediately wanted to contact François' DP. The trouble is, he frames his own shots! Usually, I'm not particularly aware of how shots are framed, but François' shots move me. And as an actress, I feel well-framed, like I'm in a painting.
Is his direction very firm or does he let you find your own space within the frame?
Both. He lets us come in and feel our way through a scene, finding our marks and pacing. But he needs to find his own as well. We adapt to each other, without ever feeling constrained.
Had you seen his other films?
Yes, I was interested in his work. His determination that each film should be different is brave, almost reckless. I love the way he works with actors, the way his camera gazes at people. He has allowed Charlotte Rampling to express something deeply human. I totally identify with her in François' films.
And the idea of having Italian songs to provide a kind of punctuation to the film? Did you take that as an homage to your origins?
Not really, I cannot claim that! Those Italian songs are romantic, kitschy and occasionally ironic. They inject a little humour into the film, they provide another way in. There is also a great deal of hope in those songs, a longing for love, a longing to be loved. That desire for love and that naiveté also compelled me to accept the role. From the start, we know that Gilles and Marion did not marry out of opportunism or boredom. We can tell they had a strong physical connection, they fell in love, they were a real couple with dreams of a bright future. They are in no way cynical. Despite their failures and negative experiences, the film says it's good to plunge into the folly and utopia of love, and really believe in it. It's not saying: "love stories always have unhappy endings", it's saying: "love stories always have happy beginnings"!
There was a five-month break in shooting. How did you feel about that?
It gave me time to lose weight and alter myself physically. It gave me time to work on looking different. They were big changes that I would not have been able to accomplish in two months. Still, it did feel a bit long. I was afraid I'd fall out of character, my life would move on, my mind would be elsewhere.
Did you see the rushes of the first part before shooting the second?
No, I didn't feel like it. Though I was working on myself physically, I was doing it from the inside out. After making my own film and seeing myself from every conceivable angle on the editing table for four months, rushes aren't a problem for me anymore. That really gave me a chance to demystify myself on the screen! But it doesn't serve any purpose for me to see myself.
Did François Ozon ask you to view any films for inspiration?
We saw part of Meryl Streep's wedding in THE DEERHUNTER and an excerpt from ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, with Robert De Niro and the dancer in the car. But François wasn't insisting that we view this material. He's not authoritarian in that way. That's not how he works. As for me, I spent a lot of time thinking about the women in François Truffaut's films, I don't know why. They are the most beautiful women in the world to me. They are sexy and so real at the same time. So sometimes, I'd pretend I was in a François Truffaut film!
It was the first time you went back to acting after directing your own film. Did that make a difference?
Yes. It made it even more pleasurable. I enjoyed the luxury of being there "only" to act. As an actress, my job was no different, but I became more aware of the fun side of acting. And François' energy is so joyful and fun too…
What about acting with Stephane Freiss?
We fell into friendship the way people fall in love. I'm very fond of him. We were happy to see each other every morning. When we ran into trouble, we'd discuss it, we'd try to help each other. A few years back we had acted together in a TV drama directed by Alain Tasma, but we didn't get to know each other. On FIVE TIMES TWO, we quickly became close, it was as though we'd been friends for a long time. If you saw us walking down the street, riding in a car or sitting together at a café you'd think we were a real couple. Or at the very least, two very good friends. That kind of chemistry is mysterious.
Is that why François Ozon cast you two as the couple in FIVE TIMES TWO?
Yes, I think there was something very obvious in the screen tests we did with Ingmar Bergman's SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE. We were asked to play a man and a woman who are angry with each other, but still connected by a shared past and a long history of love. The couple is at war, in the process of separating, and yet you feel perhaps they shouldn't separate. This is true at the beginning of François' film as well.
Gilles seems more fragile than Marion. Do you think that's true in most couples? Is it a reflection of our times?
I can't answer that. I don't know how to make generalizations and I don't understand a thing about how couples function! In my own experience, perhaps men have been more cowardly than women, more cowardly and less able to take the initiative, take the bull by the horns, confront things, communicate and be present when the going gets tough. It's true that men have a nasty habit of running away. At the same time, I feel a bit artificial saying that. I feel like I'm saying what one's meant to say, but actually I'm not so sure. I certainly didn't go into the film with that attitude. I didn't go in with big theories about love, I went in to serve the story. With just the idea that Marion is someone who wants to be happy. That's what I was working with.
When you saw the film, what was your reaction?
The film is more sentimental and melancholy than I expected. I played it for sentiment, but I didn't realize François was sentimental as well. But he is and this film, like UNDER THE SAND, reveals that about him.
Interview with Stéphane Freiss
What was your reaction on first reading FIVE TIMES TWO?
Quite frankly, if it hadn't been a film by François Ozon, I would have turned it down. There were forty pages at most, he'd only written three episodes out of five. It wasn't clear how many episodes there would be altogether, or where we were going. So the people I'd be working with became the important thing. I had François and his films, so I knew something about what I was accepting. Then there was Valeria. These two people were fundamental to me. We started the film in the order in which the scenes appear on screen, and I most certainly would not have had the faith and the spontaneity necessary to play those intense scenes if it hadn't been with them.
The hotel scene, as you say, is pretty intense…
In the screenplay, that scene was only a few lines long. It says we make love. It evolved afterwards.
But the dice were thrown early on. François has a way of approaching deeply serious things with an apparent lightness of touch. This is not because he is casual. There is something innocent and fresh about him, a naiveté about certain things, but above all I believe he possesses a true intelligence, an animal instinct. Usually, when I start a film, I know where my character is coming from and where he is headed. I re-read a story a thousand times and each scene helps me build my character. I've always worked like that. But on FIVE TIMES TWO, I had to deliberately put aside that method every day, deliberately stop asking myself where I was coming from and where I was headed. I had to be in the present, create this couple's history without really knowing anything about the woman I was with or how we’d met. We had to look at each other and listen to each other closely, open our senses wide. We built our characters on the spot, together, around each other but never against each other.
Was it basically a form of improvisation?
Yes and no. We respected the story, we simply put flesh and blood where there were words and silences. I had never done that before. François is one of those directors who are capable of uncovering unlikely and profound things in his actors. He is full of clarity and tenderness in his relationships, but behind that there is a more violent, ambiguous and troubling element. You use both the tenderness and the ambiguity to reach further inside yourself, tapping into deeper emotions.
After the hotel scene, François said, "You guys surprised me. I wasn't expecting you to give me so much." At first this made us laugh. But I think he meant it. That is also his strength. He puts the ingredients in the pot and turns up the heat to boiling point. The results are not always predictable. That’s what makes it so real.
Is it fair to say FIVE TIMES TWO is not so much about interpretation as it is about immediate identification?
It’s both, I think. People's first reaction is to identify with elements in each of the five chapters. But I think people also start wondering what has taken place between the five chapters. Valeria and I were constantly asking ourselves whether one chapter was strong enough to carry the audience over into the next chapter. Was there nothing missing? Reading the screenplay, the significance of certain actions was not readily obvious. Much of it seemed quite ordinary. The finished film reveals the meaning. The impact of a particular scene gains momentum in direct relation to what is missing, that space between scenes. In that space, the audience is free to interpret. Each scene contains not only what you see, but also the space that precedes it.
There is also the matter of time passing during the intervals between the chapters. How do you show that three years have passed?
In the theatre, I've often asked myself that question. With this film, I soon learned to let it go. I stopped worrying. I told myself François knew what he was doing. He works very closely with the make-up artist and the hairdresser. We'd exchange thoughts. That was enough to reassure me.
FIVE TIMES TWO was shot in two parts. How did you feel about this?
For the first three chapters of the film, which were shot during the first period, I felt stronger than I'd ever felt in my life! It gave me amazing energy to be working in a new way, I was proving something to myself. Two people I adored were giving me support, and our bond gave me wings.
When we parted at the end of the first shoot, I found the separation painful. I didn't want to leave them or the rest of the crew. I don't think they wanted to, either. The interval was supposed to last for two months but it ended up being five. Which seemed like a long time, especially since I hadn't seen any rushes. During the interval, I shot THE BIG PART by Steve Suissa. It was the exact opposite of FIVE TIMES TWO, a big, beautiful melodrama with a straightforward story and a classic narrative structure. It was another way of working, another context, different people. The part was not an easy one. I was playing a man who loses his wife to cancer. When I went back to FIVE TIMES TWO, I was perhaps not as light-hearted as I had been. The two final chapters are about happiness, as opposed to the darker first chapters about the couple's difficulties and separation. Now it was about the joy of meeting someone, and I felt like I was less intense. Unlike Valeria, who had worked on herself physically and was radiant. Still, I remember it as a truly happy time. The harmony was as strong as ever.
Did you mind not seeing the rushes?
In general, rushes are important because they help you become aware of what you're doing. They can also refresh the memory and put you back into a situation. In this case, as there was no standard plot, seeing the rushes would have simply served to reassure me that our chemistry functioned, that I wasn't acting too badly, or that I wasn't too ugly when I was naked! But François wasn't keen on showing us the rushes. He really wasn't.
What was working with Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi like?
I made a TV movie with Valeria fifteen years ago. We'd spent a month together, but we had no particular connection, positive or negative. We were probably not ready to meet. But on FIVE TIMES TWO, the chemistry was instantaneous. Thanks to François of course, because neither of us was quite sure where we were headed. The fact that the film was unstructured made things even more exciting. Subconsciously we may have felt that if we didn't surrender our inhibitions and give in to a genuine curiosity about each other, there wouldn't be any kind of chemistry. I think both of us opened up completely, and I certainly feel I met one of the most touching women I have ever encountered in my life. I admire Valeria, both for her energy and for her vulnerability. She is a potent mixture of pain and vitality.
How do you see your character?
Before making the film, and again at the end of each chapter, François would interview us. He'd ask us who our characters were, where they were going and where they came from. In order to synthesize all the various ideas I had, I imagined that Gilles was sexually unsure. His failure with Marion, like his previous failures with women, reveals that although he has always sought women, he should have been looking for a man. I was convinced that Gilles' brother had discovered his homosexuality before Gilles did. The Ferron brothers' sexuality was homosexuality, I was convinced!
Were you influenced by the fact that this was a François Ozon film?
I'd like to say no, but I'm not sure! François is impenetrable. He brings a lot of mystery to the story with regard to people's sensual relationships. I felt I needed to crack that mystery. When François told me Gilles rapes Marion at the hotel, it was consistent with my reading. I said to myself, "Gilles is coming face to face with his true sexuality, he's showing her he's not the man she thought he was." To me, Gilles was freeing himself of his heterosexual life in that scene, and displaying the first signs of his new, homosexual life. It was a notion I hung on to for a long time. It wasn't until our last interview that I told François, "I think I took a wrong turn, but I'm not entirely sure! I'll have to wait and see the film."
And now that you've seen it?
Today, I see what the character does as an act of utter distress, the kind of distress that sometimes pushes us to do things we despise. Gilles is fragile and Marion is strong. They are not a classic, orthodox couple but they nevertheless offer a universal vision of love. To me, that's what makes this a great film. It's not linear or conventional in its design or in the solutions it offers. I love the film above anything else, I don't regret my various musings about Gilles' sexuality. They provided me with the energy to play the part. Gilles is a fragile man but he's not spineless. He sees his marriage falling apart, slipping away from him. He's simply suffering over it, like many men do.
The wedding night and the childbirth scene are crucial moments in Gilles and Marion's marriage, which they experience separately.
Playing those childbirth scenes was very painful for me. I would never have done what Gilles did! But instinct and the subconscious are powerful forces. We all do inexplicable things, things we don't understand the meaning of until much later. There is no way to explain it. Gilles' cowardice in the hospital and Marion's unfaithfulness on her wedding night represent all the other lapses that the film doesn't show. François has a rather dark view of love. But love doesn't solve everything. Are two people who chose to form a couple superior to two people who don't? We live in a society that is undergoing change. Forming a couple has become a choice rather than an obligation.
Will this film definitively put an end to the image people have of you as a juvenile lead?
My image has evolved a great deal in recent years, luckily. LES CHOUANS was fifteen years ago! That image is obsolete. I've done a lot of theatre over the past ten years. François came to see me in a play. Perhaps he saw some complex, ambiguous and contradictory qualities buried inside me that others haven't bothered to notice. He took a chance on me. I'll be grateful for that as long as I live. He truly rekindled my desire to work in cinema.