Aspiring novelist Brian Bloom (Anton Yelchin) receives nothing but rejection letters from publishers, but when it comes to romance, he has considerably better luck, earning coy encouragement from Arielle (Berenice Marlohe), a beautiful French woman he spies smoking on a New York sidewalk. There’s just one catch: She’s married, and the couple can only meet between the hours of 5 and 7, which isn’t nearly enough to satisfy this smitten scribbler. Courageously sentimental in an age of irony, Victor Levin’s refreshingly articulate “5 to 7” delivers romance of the sort thought lost since the days of Audrey Hepburn, for those who appreciate such finery. And who doesn’t?
Truth be told, the times are startlingly harsh for stories designed to make audiences actually feel something, and “5 to 7” risks ridicule from those who can’t abide Levin’s earnest, heart-on-his-sleeve approach. Like his naive 24-year-old protagonist, Levin would rather crash and burn being true to his heart than risk holding back his emotions, and the result is a film with the power not only to move people, but possibly even to change the way they think about relationships.
As it is, the vast majority of Americans know nothing of “cinq a sept” affairs — an expression that refers to that hazy window of time after leaving work and before arriving home when Parisian gentlemen might visit their mistresses without having to justify their whereabouts. The concept has evolved somewhat in the hands of Arielle and her diplomat husband (played by suave French thesp Lambert Wilson). The couple has agreed to an open relationship, while restricting such extramarital activities to those hours.
Arielle accepts that her husband has a mistress (Olivia Thirlby) and approaches the prospect of taking a lover of her own without guilt or shame. Brian needs a bit more convincing, as do his Jewish parents (Glenn Close and Frank Langella) and most of the pic’s target demographic. He’s not at all comfortable being in an open affair, and he’s doubly disconcerted by the way the cuckold invites him into the fold. Levin’s script privileges the young man’s point of view while being careful not to reduce 33-year-old Arielle to a mere fantasy figure. Their courtship serves as more than just a cultural exchange, though xenophilic auds will delight in the various lifestyle lessons and unsubtitled expressions along the way.
In addition to representing her home country’s less puritanical values, ex-Bond girl Marlohe (“Skyfall”) also signifies an older, more experienced woman: Where baby-faced Yelchin appears appropriately callow, she’s a nouveau Mrs. Robinson, by way of Julie Delpy’s semi-liberated character in the “Before” series. Though we get no sense of Brian’s previous experience with love, we can assume it’s quite limited, just as there can be no doubt that he will look back and draw from their relationship when it comes time to write his novel — making it easy to anticipate that cliche where the blocked writer writes the story we’ve been watching, a trite resolution that Levin manages to finesse in a fresh direction, culminating in one of the loveliest last lines of any film in recent memory.
Incidentally, there are lovely lines throughout the film. Clearly, this is a work of writerly fantasy, where self-deprecating narration doesn’t necessarily contradict one’s ability to win a New Yorker new writer’s award. That’s not to say Levin’s script isn’t informed by poignantly observed truths about real life, including the somewhat corny device of punctuating the film with inscriptions carved into the benches of Central Park.
There is a playfulness and ambition here that mirrors Brian’s state of mind, even if Levin is himself a good deal older. Indeed, his feature debut arrives later than most, after having a couple scripts produced (including “Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!”) and carving out a respectable quarter-century resume in television (on such shows as “The Larry Sanders Show,” “Mad About You” and “Mad Men”), allowing lessons learned both personally and professionally to enrich the material.
That translates to more elegant, traditional decisions in the supporting crafts as well, including his use of a classical-style score from “Martha Marcy May Marlene” composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans that borrows heavily (yet well) from “Cinema Paradiso.” Shot in widescreen and edited with a restraint that leaves room for reflection, “5 to 7” allows scenes to play out at a distance without sacrificing intimacy, reserving its closeups for the moments that really matter. Like Marlohe’s character, the film has a heavy French accent, but expresses itself with the eloquence of a native speaker.