The Woman in the Fifth is a tale of psychological unraveling and dread. This lovely, troubling new film from director Pawel Pawlikowski is loosely adapted from Douglas Kennedy’s novel of the same name, and tells of Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke), an American writer set adrift in Paris with no money, no family and no second novel.
The film opens with Ricks traveling to Paris in an attempt to reunite with his young daughter, despite strict rules against seeing her or his ex-wife. The police are summoned and intimations of past violence are made. Ricks escapes and dozes on the bus only to awaken at the literal and figurative end of the line, robbed of all his possessions other than a stuffed giraffe and his passport.
And so begins our Kafkaesque tour of an imagined Paris of literary salons and shadowy criminal waystations. Along the way, Ricks meets a haunted muse named Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas), a shady landlord/employer (Samir Guesmir) and a beautiful young admirer (Joanna Kulig). He takes a job sitting all night locked in an underground bunker, watching a monitor and buzzing in suspicious characters who arrive asking for “Monsieur Monde.” He begins an affair with Margit, who has strange rules about their meetings. He stalks his daughter on playgrounds and streets. And then, just as we’ve settled in to the dream logic of this film, the violence begins and everything turns upside down.
Ethan Hawke is aging well. As his face grows more lined and weathered, it seems better suited to the twitching mass of neuroses and frustrated energy that has always been just beneath the surface of his work. Hawke’s performance in The Woman in the Fifth is one of his finest to date. There is something charming about him and his unaccented French even as he creeps around Paris or lies in bed in his filthy garret, growing more obsessed. He wears glasses that magnify his eyes just a little—enough to accentuate the peering awkwardness of his character as he sits at tables or monitors or playgrounds and stares and stares.
As the inscrutable Margit, Kristin Scott Thomas exudes mystery and a kind of tattered glamor. She observes Ricks like a specimen, fascinated and detached even in the throes of sex. As we learn more about her, this eerie voyeuristic quality is even more unsettling and captivating.
Watching (and being watched) is a driving theme of this film. Eyes magnified in lenses, monitors, owls looking out from imaginary forests and sketches, spying neighbors.
A murder, a revelation and a disappearance mark the disintegration of Ricks’ world. The Paris he inhabits, which at times (appropriately) looks more like East Berlin in the 1970s than the City of Lights of guidebooks, makes less and less sense. People are not who they say they are. Even Ricks is not who he has seemed. By the end, we don’t even know who exists in the real world and who lives only in Ricks’ imagination. In fact, we’re unsure of where exactly the “real world” begins and ends.
The Woman in the Fifth is taut and compelling, all jangling nerves and existential dread. But, as notable as all the performances and cinematic craftsmanship are, Pawlikowski’s film stumbles in the act of actual storytelling. A few too many questions remain unanswered, and we know too little about our protagonist and his world to fully invest either emotionally or intellectually in them. Also, the film seems too taken with the juvenile notion that one must sacrifice family and happiness in order to attain artistic greatness. The viewer is left unable to explain not only just what happened, but why. A story with these holes, no matter how stimulating or visually ravishing, is incomplete.
In spite of its frustrating qualities, The Woman in the Fifth is worth the price of admission. After all, one need not know what’s going on to enjoy the strong performances by Hawke, Thomas, Guesmir and Kulig—or to become a fan of Pawlikowski.
Writers: Douglas Kennedy (book); Pawel Pawlikowski (screenplay)
Starring:Ethan Hawke, Kristin Scott Thomas, Joanna Kulig, Samir Guesmir
Release Date:June 15, 2012