Title: The Woman in the Fifth
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Kristin Scott Thomas, Joanna Kulig, Samir Guesmi
A dark testimonial to the notion of artistic bloom and creative salvation through misery, Pawel Pawlikowski’s “The Woman in the Fifth” is an intellectually engaging puzzle box, a movie that happily dances about on both literal and metaphorical planes. Starring Ethan Hawke as an emotionally wayward novelist and Kristin Scott Thomas as his mysterious new muse, the very European film should find intrigued and mostly unpiqued embrace in the arms of Stateside arthouse audiences for whom the cast will be the main factor that gets them in the door.
American author Tom Ricks (Hawke) arrives in Paris with the intent of reconnecting with his estranged wife (Delphine Chuillot) and young daughter (Julie Papillon). The attempt at reconciliation goes poorly and Tom, after his luggage is stolen, ends up in a flophouse at the edge of the city. The proprietor, Sezer (Samir Guesmi), sort of takes pity on him, letting Tom stay without paying, and later giving him a mysterious security job at a run-down warehouse, buzzing people in if they speak the right name.
During this time, while spending his nights writing long letters to his daughter, and trying to scrape up the money to hire an immigration and child custody lawyer, Tom strikes up a relationship with Ania (Joanna Kulig), a Polish waitress and bartender with an interest in poetry. Taking a flyer on a bohemian writers’ event, he also meets Margit Kadar (Thomas), an enigmatic translator who seduces Tom and, while complimenting him and his work, also asserts that he presently has the makings of something grander — “a real tragedy if you play your cards right.” A series of strange, inexplicable events ensue, leaving Tom even further racked with doubt over the course of his life.
No paean, this, “The Woman in the Fifth” takes as its source material Douglas Kennedy’s novel of the same name. Pawlikowski, however, isn’t interested in plumbing the notion of the tortured artist solely for purposes of masturbatory self-exaltation. He constructs his movie as a kind of lightheaded, slightly buzzed mystery of the tension between the id and ego, something that composer Max De Wardener’s music wonderfully and slyly abets. In this respect, Tom’s corralled consciousness is both literal and a bit of a metaphorical dream device, but neither alone.
As a conundrum that’s perhaps a bit too proud of it, there are plenty of lingering questions the movie doesn’t answer: Is Tom’s separation from his daughter really the result of domestic violence? And was his first novel as successful as he maintains? But the performances here are so finely modulated — Hawke shines, in owlish, large-lensed glasses that make him look slightly like a younger, more intellectual Mr. Magoo, while Thomas luxuriates in caginess and a mature sexuality — that for most of its running time its refusal to sketch out much by way of its characters’ pasts hardly matters. The film is savvy about slow-peddling Tom’s neediness, and smart about what gets its hooks in him; “You have a voice, I believe in you,” says Margit, which is like catnip to a creative type like Tom.
If there’s a complaint, it’s that “The Woman in the Fifth” — whose title refers to Margit’s lodging, a European colloquialism — seems a bit slim, and dodgy especially in its end game. It clocks in at only 83 minutes, and misses the chance to plumb Tom’s cultural isolation to further moody effect. And when its most intriguing and unsettling twist occurs, it’s a short, 15-minute sled ride to the off ramp, which comes across as an abortive wrap-up that, no matter the ambiguity of its ending, feels like it deserves a bit more investigation. Perhaps that’s intended for the post-viewing conversation over coffee, however.
Written by: Brent Simon
A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.