The Woman in the Fifth, adapted from the novel by Douglas Kennedy, tells the story of an author whose crumbling personal life is second only to the decaying state of his mind. Although it has a definite sequence of events, I hesitate to say that it has a plot. The intention, so far as I could tell, was to toy with the audience’s perception of reality, to intentionally raise questions without answering them. Writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski seems to operate under the assumption that a certain degree of madness goes hand in hand with the writing process. To an extent, he’s probably right; it takes a special kind of person to not only conceive of fictitious people, places, and plots but to also obsess over them until the story has naturally resolved itself. The real downside is that this usually comes at the expense of a personal life.
Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke), an American literature professor with one published novel to his name, travels to Paris, desperate to reunite with his six-year-old daughter, Chloe (Julie Papillion). His estranged wife, Nathalie (Delphine Chuillot), clearly does not want him in Chloe’s life; the details are not made explicitly clear, although we do know that she has already filed a restraining order against him, and it’s strongly suggested that he has spent time in prison. Fleeing from Nathalie’s apartment after she calls the police, he boards a bus, falls asleep, and awakens to find that his bag has been stolen. He’s now lost in a city he’s completely unfamiliar with. The best he has going for him is that he can speak French. He takes refuge in a seedy hostel on the outskirts of town.
Because he doesn’t have the money to pay for a room, he’s forced to work as a night guard in a warehouse owned by Sezer (Samir Guesmin), who can never say anything without sounding sinister. The job is simple enough; all Tom has to do is buzz people in. Granted, they must speak in code if they’re to be granted access, and it certainly is odd that they look rather shady and pop by at all hours of the night. Then there’s the fact that neither Tom nor the audience has any idea what, if anything, they do behind the closed door of the neighboring cell. We are made aware that, every time a group of men enter the room, the light bulbs in the lamp on Tom’s desk flicker. And then there’s the moment Tom puts his ear against the wall in an attempt to eavesdrop; someone immediately bangs on the wall and warns Tom that, if he continues to listen in, he will be killed.
As he feverishly handwrites letters to Chloe, all of which detail a magical forest located somewhere in Virginia, two women enter Tom’s life. One is Ania (Joanna Kulig), a Polish waitress in Sezer’s café who has a healthy interest in poetry. Her attraction to him is not adequately explained, although, given the love and affection he so desperately craves, it’s easy to understand his attraction to her. The other woman is the mysterious Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas), the well-travelled translator of her late husband’s Hungarian novels. She and Tom met at an upscale literary gathering hosted by an English-speaking bookshop owner. Obviously aware of his attraction to her, she gives Tom a card with her name and address on it. She makes it clear that, if they are to meet, it can only be on her terms.
And so it comes to pass that he finds himself at Paris’ Fifth Arrondissment, entering her apartment and immediately dropping his defenses against her bold, borderline oedipal sexual advances. Tom’s attraction to her only deepens as entices him into abandoning everyone and everything he knows. This would include not only Ania, with whom Tom has also begun an affair, but also his wife and daughter. Not long after this has been being established, the plot takes a drastic turn with the inclusion of a sudden murder and an unexplainable disappearance, both of which have direct connections to Tom. Is it possible that Margit isn’t quite what she seems, given the fact that she never disclosed the details of her husband’s death? And what can Tom – or we, for that matter – make of an unexpected and illogical revelation about Margit?
Having provided you with a plot description, having enticed with vague hints and strategically worded questions, I’m wondering why I bothered. The Woman in the Fifth is not intent on explaining itself; it’s a psychological thriller told from an unreliable perspective, so in essence, it’s really less of a film and more of an exercise in atmosphere and craft. There is something to be said for that. An enigmatic narrative is far more likely to stimulate the imagination and generate topics of conversation than a traditional detective story, which typically rely on both an explanation and an emotional climax. Having said that, there’s a very fine line between an enigma and an underdeveloped screenplay, and at times, this movie comes dangerously close to crossing it. Still, it’s an engrossing film – technically competent, structurally magnetic, and wonderfully cast.
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