The Woman In The Fifth
The latest feature from Polish director Pawl Pawlikowski (Last Resort, My Summer of Love) has many possible critiques. With your eyes squinted it even wears of the guise of intellect. It’s a tense study of perception, playing cat and mouse with ideas of ghosts and murder. One thing is clear; The Woman in the Fifth will not abide by your notions that films should necessarily answer anything.
Ethan Hawke is often known for choosing scripts of substance. Whether it’s Dead Poets Society, Gattaca, or Training Day that wets your appetite, he respects the craft and commits to character. The Woman in the Fifth (originally titled La Femme Du Veme — and which refers to the fifth arrondissement) is no exception. Convincingly jumping between English and French, Hawke plays Tom Ricks, an American novelist who locates to Paris to chase his estranged wife, Nathalie (Delphine Chuillot) and get partial custody of his young daughter, Chloe (Julie Papillon).
The past which led to this situation is shrouded, and only subtly revealed through cuts to the imaginary forest he’s creating for his daughter in what may be his next novel (or just a letter, it’s not certain). There are also the skeptical, frightened looks from his wife and Tom speaking covertly through a playground fence to Chloe, saying she has the same eyesight as him and should never get it corrected because they would no longer see the world the same. Tom is that classic unreliable narrator, a technique which holds together thrillers with such tact. “I feel like the real me is somewhere else…” Tom says. “I’m like a sad double.”
The Paris portrayed in The Woman in the Fifth, is not some romanticized American version conjured up in fantasies. This Paris is home to the lesser-seen grit, the real Paris, its soul — the rust on the porcelain. Upon his arrival, Tom’s wife calls the cops, his belongings are stolen (except a stuffed giraffe he bought for Chloe) and he’s forced to take up lodging in a seedy hostel owned by Sezer (Samir Guesmi), who promptly seizes his passport. Unable to find work without proper identification, Tom agrees to work for Sezer as a night watchman in a rundown warehouse to earn money for room and board. Here he is instructed to lock himself in a dilapidated room and questionably admit shady characters into the building.
Soon enough, Tom meets a widow, the femme-fatale Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas) at a literary party. Her husband was an author as well, whom she describes as necessarily depressed — all authors need a tragedy. She purrs that she will be his muse. He shortly then becomes entangled with the young Polish waitress (Joanna Kulig) as well who works at the bar below the Hostel. All the while forcing the audience to question the sincerity of each encounter, what is real, and who’s toying with whom.
It’s a visually evocative film, with tense camera angles, dimly lit interiors, and an appropriately dark, Parisian musical soundtrack. Based on the less-than-acclaimed 2007 novel by Douglas Kennedy the film makes the point that some things just can’t help but be lost in translation — whether that’s positive or not is up for debate. Pawlikowski’s knack for creating a dark and ominous ambience oozes talent and commands respect. There’s just not much to be said for a script that brushes hazily broad strokes that wink and suggestively hint at blurred confusions transpiring within the artistic mind, but that ultimately concludes nothing. We’re shown glimpses of that thin vein that runs between art and reality, love and loss, death and regret without the culmination of an equally striking finale. Hemmingway and his icebergs would be proud.
The Woman in the Fifth quite possibly leaves a few too many threads to dangle along its seams to cement extreme applause, but it does provoke. There can’t be enough said for the craftsmanship and ambience that is created by Pawlkowski, which lingers and haunts the viewer the whole way. It’s translucent if you choose to see it in the right light, but in the end it’s all conjecture. It’s attractive conjecture, but skimming the surface nonetheless.
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