Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke) isn’t having a good time. He arrives in Paris in the hope of reuniting with his daughter, but is soon thrown out of his ex-wife’s home amid accusations of prior violence and a restraining order. After falling asleep on a bus, he wakes up at the end of the line having been robbed of his suitcase and cash.
Still in hope of having some contact with his child, Tom manages to find a cheap room in a hovel and to supplement his income with a strange CCTV job that merely involves opening a door for people, without knowing what’s on the other side. He has hopes of finishing his second novel (even though he seems to remember little about the first), and putting his life back on track.
He then meets a 50-something seductress, Margit (Scott Thomas) – the titular woman in the fifth arrondisement of Paris – as well as a young bartender (Joanna Kulig), beginning relationships with both of them. However Margit is not what she appears and may be a hint that the odd moments of violence and fractured nature of Tom’s existence are far from straightforward and that the film is more metaphysical puzzle than either drama or thriller.
Hollywood films sometimes get accused of having too much story and not enough character and emotion, but if anything The Woman In The Fifth goes too far the other way. It’s all character, emotion and mood, while the narrative is sometimes a little too obscure for its own good. The film does a great job of drawing you into the strange and intense existence of Ricks – helped by an unusually strong and understated performance from Ethan Hawke – but it’s so intent on being enigmatic and not making things too easy for the audience, that a lot of people will end the movie having little clue as to exactly what they’ve just seen. Some people won’t mind that, but others undoubtedly will.
There are various possibilities as to exactly what’s going on in this puzzle box of a film and towards the end the mist does slightly – even if not completely – clear, but if you’re the sort of person who demands concrete answers from your entertainment, you’re not going to like this. Director Pawel Pawlikowski has even said it’s not a film you should pick apart too much. If that’s not too much of a problem for you, The Woman In The Fifth is a truly intriguing and enigmatic film that does a very good job of posing questions and drawing you into a man’s fractured psyche, where reality and fiction, as well as the difference between how you perceive yourself and how you really are, all start to mingle.
Pawel Pawlikowski impressed the arthouse world and won two BAFTAs for his first two fiction features, 2000’s Last Resort and 2004’s My Summer Of Love. It’s taken him nearly eight years to follow those movies up, and with The Woman In The Fifth he takes the wonderful knack for mood he hinted at in his earlier movies to a new level. However his insistence on being obscure to the point of inevitably alienating a large chunk of the audience, does limit the appeal of the film.
That said, it’s easy to imagine this film becoming somewhat beloved by a certain section of arthouse purists, as it does make you think, has a wonderfully seductive mood and poses questions within question within questions. Ethan Hawke is excellent, with the movie playing on the fact that like the character he plays, he himself is a divorced father and author. Kristin Scott Thomas is, as always, a strong, steely presence, while Joanna Kulig – who makes her English-language debut with the film – could be another Pawlikowski discovery following Emily Blunt and Nathalie Press in My Summer Of Love.
The film certainly has a lot to recommend it, with the only question being whether the lack of any real sense of closure and plenty of unanswered questions will leave you intrigued or just frustrated.
Overall Verdict: A moody, enigmatic and endlessly intriguing film with Ethan Hawke on top form. However it may be a little too obscure for its own good.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac