‘The Woman in the Fifth’ Leaves Viewer Confused
The last time Ethan Hawke strolled through the streets of Paris it was with French actress Julie Delpy by his side in the film “Before Sunset” (2004). His return to the romantic capital in the French-British-Polish drama, “The Woman in the Fifth,” has a much darker undercurrent and also shows a different, gloomier side of the so-called city of lights.
Hawke, once a Generation X poster boy following his portrayal of Troy Dyer, a cynical philosophy major dropout, musician and slacker in the 1994 movie “Reality Bites,” seems to be all grown up. There is not much left of the rugged, yet boyish charm that made him famous. Instead, there is a sense of sobriety around Hawke that works well for “The Woman in the Fifth.”
Directed and written by Pawel Pawlikowski of Poland, the downbeat movie is loosely based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Douglas Kennedy. It tells the story of American writer and college professor Tom Ricks (Hawke) who moves to Paris to be closer to his daughter. But the reunion turns sour when his ex-wife refuses to let him into the apartment.
Frustrated, Tom gets lost in Paris and eventually ends up at a sleazy hotel and bar owned by a Turkish man, where he finds both a place to crash and a job as a night guard. He also meets the mysterious Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas) with whom he begins an obsessive affair inspiring him to start writing again. Things take a turn for the worst when a hotel guest is found killed in the bathroom and Tom suspects that Margit might be involved.
As in the novel, Pawlikowski shifts back and forth from reality to dream world.
This turns out to be one of the main problems of this movie: it can’t decide what it wants to be. Is it a drama that involves a love triangle? A suspense thriller? A fantasy film? It’s not that Pawlikowski has to choose one, but he can’t seem to find the right recipe to combine the genres and weave them into an intricate story. It is a shame because the material was made for such an approach, and the director starts off well enough.
The viewers realize that there is something off about Tom, which leaves them posing questions — why doesn’t his ex-wife want him to get in touch with their daughter? What exactly has he done not to deserve a place in his child’s life? What game does Margit play and is she actually a real person, or just an object of Tom’s fantasy? Something definitely lurks beneath the surface.
Pawlikowski doesn’t think it necessary to solve riddles and expose the inner workings of his characters’ minds.
Kristin Scott Thomas rarely fails to deliver and her performance as Hungarian widow and translator Margit is decent enough. Yet it seems she is capable of doing more.
Hawke does a better job at dissecting Tom’s character. His portrayal of a broken man, who, due to a restraining order, can only watch his daughter in from afar while he tries to put back the pieces of his life is believable.
But even Hawke can’t save the film because there are only so many moods, thoughts, doubts and worries that an actor can reveal through gestures and looks.
The film, that at times bears some resemblance to the work of another Polish director, Roman Polanski’s “The Tenant,” remains pale in comparison to Pawlikowski’s previous efforts, such as “My Summer of Love,” which helped launch the career of Emily Blunt, and indie flick “Last Resort.”
After raising so many issues and questions at the beginning, Pawlikowski has done a fine job in awakening curiosity and suspense in his viewers. But then he leaves them unsatisfied. When the end credits appear on the screen after 85 minutes, the majority of the questions remain unanswered. There is nothing wrong with a film that has an open end, however, it shouldn’t feel as disappointing and as anti-climatic as this.
The Woman in the Fifth
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski
Starring Ethan Hawke, Kristin Scott Thomas 85 minutes
English with Indonesian subtitles