The Woman in the Fifth is a slow thriller that explores the randomness of life and mental illness. A well shot psychological thriller with supernatural undertones, it questions one man’s version of reality so thoroughly as to make the audience wonder what actually happened. Surreal in an exacting sort of manner, the film alternates between the real and the imagined so thoroughly and so often that it ends up creating a disturbing and challenging film.
American Professor Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke) relocates to Paris hopeful to put his life together again and win back the love of his estranged wife and daughter. Upon visiting his wife’s home, he is rejected and sets out to find a place to stay for the night. On the metro, his belongings are stolen. Winding up in a dejected hotel, he eventually finds work as a doorman for a local thug and operator of the hotel. Here, he tries to deal with his mental illness and reestablishing contact with his wife and daughter. At a party, he meets Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas), with which he begins a fateful affair.
The film makes use of a number of plots, subplots and failed plots to demonstrate the depth of Ricks’ illness. Never is it clear what elements of the film are happening, what are in his mind, and what a mix of the two is. Events that seemingly are important wind up to be nearly irrelevant, while minor points become large events later. There is an odd ebb and flow to events, and meaning to both significant and insignificant events that also have no meaning at all. If you understood that last sentence then the movie, in its own way, will make sense as well.
Characters seem to wander into his life, yet most only serve as props. As mentioned, he starts an affair with Margit, who was muse to her writer husband, who died. He befriends Ania (Joanna Kulig) who runs the café in the hotel where he lives and is girlfriend of Sezer (Samir Guesmi). Drinking tea and writing, he begins a small, but important relationship with the girl without the knowledge of Sezer. As this relationship grows, so do the compound problems of Ricks inability to discern from what is and is not happening to him. He knows he is mentally ill, yet seems to be unable to ordain what is real, what is not, what actions he has taken and what has been done by others.
This disjointed narrative actually flows quite well, with long, slow shots of Hawke in rather unattractive, thick lens glasses, distorting his reality. It is this very distortion of reality that permeates the entire film. At no point are we given a clear view of his world, or what is happening in it. The relationship with Margrit is at the center of it, starting before the one with Ania, and having much deeper ramifications for what choices he makes. In an odd mix of Oedipal and spite, she acts as both lover and tyrant, muse and scrutinizer. She controls him, yet tells him to come when he wants and puts no restrictions on him until he can no longer resist doing exactly what she wants. Ania, on the other hand, has a quiet desperation, longing for a real emotional connection. Like the world around her, she is pale and lifeless. Yet she knows there is more, and sees Ricks as a possible solution to this, not comprehending the depth of his delusions.
A wonderful filming style highlight the hollow nature of the characters lives. Even Paris seems rather hollow and empty, with the only scenic shot coming from a hazy focus of the Eiffel Tower. The rest are unlikely camera angles showing the backstreets and alleyways as a reflection Ricks’ mental state during a particular scene. So much is played out in hidden rooms, rooftops, and abandoned, forgotten places to give it a hauntingly beautiful atmosphere. The soft score underlines his confused grief without becoming distracting.
Director Pawel Pawlikowski has made an interesting film of Douglas Kennedy‘s book of the same title. While a dark examination of a man’s struggle to overcome his illness, it also serves to confound and disturb viewers with its stark beauty.
While not for everyone, I would recommend it for those that seek a dark examination of someone’s mental state.