The unfocused opening shot reveals a wilderness, closing in on a tree and then a bespectacled young girl sitting at the base of it. Cut to a jumbo jet screeching down a runway and Ethan Hawke proceeding through customs in a French airport. What is that opening shot? Is it a dream or is it a memory? Does it belong to Ethan Hawke’s displaced American writer/lecturer Tom Ricks, who has found himself in Paris on a mission to reconnect with his young daughter Chloe?
The Woman in the Fifth works like that. It hit me in the wondering place inside my mind and never let me free from there. It marks the first film for writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski since his dreamy 2004 coming-of-age drama My Summer of Love, which put Emily Blunt on the map. What the two films have in common is that they are meant to be absorbed more than they are meant to be understood. This one begins as a character drama and then evolves over a slow burn into an elusive erotic thriller, although by the end we can’t be too sure about whether that evolution is real or if it exists solely in Tom’s head.
The key to understanding this movie is that it appears to have no awareness that it’s a movie. With a carry-on in tow, Tom arrives in Paris to the apartment of his estranged wife Nathalie (Delphine Chuillot). “You have no right to be here…I’ll call the police”, she warns. “Why would you do that?”, Tom replies. At this point in any conventional movie, what should come next is, “You have a lot of nerve breaking the rules of your restraining order for (insert whatever it is he’s guilty of having done)”, but in this one there is a beat filled with silence between the two before Tom abruptly leaves. See, they don’t know they’re in a movie. She knows what he did and he either knows and is ashamed of it and leaves, or is simply too mentally ill to fully understand it himself.
On the way out he has a brief encounter with young Chloe where we learn they share the same Buddy Holly type of thick-rimmed glasses that in close-ups appear to make their eyes look larger, like anime characters. He doesn’t even have enough time to give her the toy giraffe he bought her before the police arrive, forcing him to flee down the street in a hurry. He boards a transit bus where he eventually falls asleep, waking up to the tap-tap of the driver explaining that they’re at the end of the line and with that the realization that his luggage and his wallet have been stolen.
Lost in a forlorn neighborhood in the City of Lights, Tom negotiates his stay at a seedy hotel managed by an equally shady but never unintelligent middle-easterner named Sezer (Samir Guesmi) and his blond, Polish wife with the quiet demeanor and open face in Ania (Joanna Kulig), who runs the hotel’s cafe. For 50 Euros a day, Tom enters the underground economy working for Sezer in a small room in a derelict drug den where he can write and pay for his stay at the hotel while he works out the legal entanglements of trying to win some visitation rights to see Chloe. His job is simple: keep a lookout on the monitor and let people in only if they repeat the correct password.
In a parallel narrative that begins in a local bookshop, Tom is invited to chill with some local writers. In a social pool of his own kind, we see Tom struggling to remain present amid the stench of pretension and literary banter, until his eyes meet those of a sophisticated-looking sultry woman (Kristin Scott Thomas) across the room. He follows her outside where we learn that her name is Margit and the she was made a widow years earlier in a narrative thread where it is eventually implied that she may have had something to do with his death. She leaves Tom a card for her to call her and soon enough he does just that, visiting her in her apartment in the fifth arrondissement (district) where they immediately begin a dance where Margit plays the mother and the muse to the self-pitying Tom.
The film navigates between Tom at his lonely, underground job, where he tries to sort out his writer’s block in a very long letter to his daughter, and the Tom who is having an affair with Margit as well as the development of a timid relationship with Sezer’s wife Ania. At a brisk running time of just under 85 minutes, I found myself absorbed with Tom’s psychosis. In a sense, this movie distills everything we’ve come to know and trust about Ethan Hawke as an actor, studying his face carefully, this way and that, all throughout the pic. What is locked there behind his furrowed brow? What is he repressing? What scandal was he involved in back in America? His face suggests everything while the movie gives away nothing. It just seems to observe life from behind Tom’s thick glasses and we come to understand that Tom does not fully understand himself. There is something deeper than just writer’s block here, if only he could get at what the problem is.
The Woman in the Fifth gripped me throughout, even if the conclusion left me feeling somewhat unsatisfied. Maybe that’s the point. It’s not even so much a conclusion as it is a piling on of fragments from the different narratives all colluding together with key plot points happening off-screen, an elusive ending to a film that successfully gets inside a very interior Ethan Hawke performance of a man who is as elusive to his own self as the movie is to us.
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.