An all-too-brief dip into menace and illusion
Some movies make you feel lucky to have your life. The Paris of my regular sojourns may not be as glamorous as Catherine Deneuve’s or Woody Allen’s, but it’s thankfully nothing like Ethan Hawke’s in this nightmarish little film by Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, adapted from a novel by Douglas Kennedy. I walked out feeling intrigued, and most fortunate: a result of film-going not to be discounted. Though the whole thing may not be thoroughly convincing, the lukewarm reviews don’t do justice to the richly claustrophobic atmosphere, good acting, and sensuouly ugly-beautiful cinematography of Ryszard Lenczewski.
Tom Ricks (Hawke) is an American writer and university lecturer with the thick-rimmed glasses to prove it. He’s in a bad fix. His first and only novel was a success but he has run out of inspiration. Indeed he has recently been hospitalized, and seems to have been going haywire (“haunted by scandal” at his college the book summary says, but that’s left out here). He misses his six-year-old daughter Chloé (Julie Papillon) terribly. So as the film begins he has just flown to Paris to be with her. But his sudden appearance surprises and appalls his French ex-wife Nathalie (Delphine Chuillot) who has an exclusion order out against him, and when he visits her, she calls the police and sends him running. Having nowhere to stay, he falls asleep on a bus, and wakes up at the end of the line with his suitcase and wallet stolen. He holes up in a fleabag hotel run by a dodgy Arab called Sezer (Samir Guesmi) with a pretty young blond Polish wife, Ania (Joanna Kulig). Sezer gives Ricks, who doens’t get on with his big black hostile neighbor, a claustrophobic job as a hidden gatekeeper at a warehouse letting people in for some devious and mysterious doings. It’s a grim, gray, menacing place. And Tom Ricks is an invisible man.
In fact the part of Paris Ricks has happened into looks and feels almost laughably close to some Iron Curtain nightmare — though his wife is in a nice part (the 17th), and so is Margit Kandara (the titular 5th), the latter a Hungarian literary translator (Kristen Scott Thomas) whom Tom meets at a posh party in a building practically on top of the Eiffel Tower. He gets these tantalizing glimpses of the postcard city.
Ricks falls into an affair with Margit, and one with Ania begins soon after. Between six-hour stints locked into his security gatekeeper gig he spies on his child and stalks his wife, who if ever there’s any trouble calls the police.
Pawlikowski, rebooting Kennedy, takes us into a “claustrophobic and irrational” world, as Graham Greene said of Patricia Highsmith’s, where we feel “a sense of personal danger.” The Woman in the Fifth has plenty of style and atmosphere. And though it’s repellent, it’s also seductive. The dive hotel bar, which instantly envelops us, is reminiscent of the one in Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum.
Tom is increasingly entangled with the sexy, elegant Margit, who wants to be his muse, as she was her late husband’s, while his involvments at his hotel grow life-threatening. He spends hours and hours at his gatekeeper job writing a long letter to his daughter, who isn’t old enough to make sense of it and whom he’s only actually been able to speak to for a few minutes. As he appears increasingly unhinged — and may have been from the start, when he forced his way into his ex-wife’s apartment — the narrative itself grows too unsteady to sustain the suspense and the danger. “I feel like the real me is somewhere else,” he says. “The me that’s here is a sad double.”
We begin to know too soon that we are going to escape unscathed, left only with memories of how pretty grafitti in a Paris ghetto and gray pathways to nowhere photographed by Lenczewski look from a distance and how nice Ethan Hawke’s hair seems when being shampooed by Scott Thomas. Though at times he may seem a little too much on the goofy side, Hawke gives a convincing, committed performance as the distraught, haunted writer, his manner perhaps informed by his own secondary writing career and, as a spurned lover, his having been devastated in real life by the breakup with Uma Thurman.
Some find this new effort a falling-off from Pawlikowski’s 2004 sophomore film Summer of Love, which got raves and launched Emily Blunt’s career; but is it absurd to notice there are echoses of that in Tom’s sunlit romps with Ania? The Woman in the Fifth/La Femme du Vème, which takes on more grownup torments, debuted at Toronto in September 2011. It won little praise in Paris when it opened there November 16 (Allociné’s rating was a lukewarm 2.8), and the current Metacritic rating (including some British reviews) is only 54. Actually, some parts of Paris really are ugly, or at least very far from pretty, and it’s time people took note of that. Reviewers keep knocking Hawke’s French, which they compare to Nick Nolte’s — not fair. Within its limitations — for a discussion with a French lawyer he needs an interpreter — it’s really fine. Moreover his own drabness (the thick specs) belies a tarnished glamour that’s very attractive. This is a vintage Hawke performance. And The Woman in the Fifth, if there are no titters in the audience to spoil it for you, will be a far better and more engrossing watch than the bad press implies.
Douglas Kennedy is the bestselling American thriller writer, resident in London, whose novel The Big Picture was filmed in France two years ago asL’homme qui voulait vivre sa vie starring Romain Duris. As film material, Woman has the advantage of being less high-concept than Big Picture.
Screened for this review at the San Francisco Film Society Cinema, June 19, 2012. It opened in the UK Feb. 17, and in the US June 15.
DIRECTOR: PAWEL PAWLIKAWSKI
CAST: ETHAN HAWKE, KRISTEN SCOTT THOMAS, JOANNA KULIG, SAMIR GUESMI, DELPHINE CHUILLOT, JUILIE PAPILLON.
RUNTIME: 85 MIN.
COUNTRY: FRANCE, POLAND, UK