CINEMA The Woman In The Fifth
France’s capital has proven a popular location for the art house movie. The city of love and romance plays host to some stunning locations and quaint streets which lend themselves well to les histoires d’amour. However, for anyone that has ever visited the city, the reality can be quite different to the view presented on the silver screen, something that The Woman In The Fifth seeks to capture with a story which includes romantic themes, but is more La Haine than Before Sunset in its presentation of Paris.
American writer and lecturer Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke) arrives in Paris, telling the immigration official that he is there to write his next novel and look after his daughter while his wife is at work. Upon arrival at his wife’s home, it quickly becomes clear he is not welcome, with her calling the police and telling them her husband is violating a restraining order put in place as a result of his violent outbursts. After briefly seeing his surprised daughter, who had thought he was in prison, Tom runs from the arriving police and onto a bus where he falls asleep, waking in the Parisian suburbs at the end of the line, having had everything but his passport and the clothes on his back stolen.
Finding a shady café/hotel, Tom negotiates a room with dodgy owner Sezer (Samir Guesmi) who offers Tom work as a night guard in exchange for rent. With his life at rock bottom, Tom meets the mysterious and beautiful Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas). Striking up an intense physical relationship, Tom’s life appears to be turning around, although can we really trust the movie’s narrator?
The Woman In The Fifth is loosely based on a book of the same name. However, in this movie adaptation, gone are the mentions of a dismembered penis and scandal involving a student, instead replaced by a background for Tom which hints at something more violent and visceral. The book is more used as a starting point for the movie rather than a true representation of the tale transferred onto the big screen.
Director Pawel Pawlikowski cut his teeth in documentaries, with The Woman In The Fifth representing his third feature film. In his previous efforts, Pawlikowski has shown his panache at presenting highly stylish films which endeavour to keep the viewer guessing as the storyline progresses, not always as the viewer sees it, before revealing all at the end. This style is in full force here, as Pawlikowski said: “The technique is common in novels; between the lines we discover that the narrator is not telling the truth or he is deluded.” However, in films everything is presented on screen, thus it is a much trickier skill to pull off in a manner that keeps the film intact and remains acceptably believable for the viewer.
Pawlikowski takes his Parisian setting and endeavours to present it in an unusual and unexpected manner.
Just like another director of Polish origin before him, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Pawlikowski takes his Parisian setting and endeavours to present it in an unusual and unexpected manner. In this instance, he uses numerous blurred shots to effectively underline Tom’s isolation in this new and strange country. Many of the shots also maintain a dream-like quality, leading the viewer to further question the validity of what is on screen. Despite being a big city, there is a quiet quality to the surroundings that, at times, gives the French capital the feeling of being populated by just the lead characters.
In terms of the characters, Ethan Hawke is excellent as the lead. A generally likeable man, his quiet and contemplative manner hints at the darker side to his personality. Barely a shot passes without his presence, and he carries the film very well, displaying an intriguing mix of vulnerability, confusion and ferocity to underline the complexities of his nature.
Kristin Scott Thomas adopts a role to which she is very well suited as the mysterious seductress Margit. A clearly confident individual, she plays the role of muse to Tom’s efforts to reignite his writing career with a book for his daughter. She is both a mother and a lover – an early scene with Tom highlighting this dual role, as she is seen to be pleasuring Tom sexually in one instance before being seen to bathe while advising him in another. While she divulges enough of a background to feel her character has been introduced, she remains enough of an enigma to suggest hidden depths to her back-story the viewer is yet to see.
Special mention should also be made for Samir Guesmi’s Sezer, another multi-layered character able to seem both kind, for example in the way he lets Tom stay in his room free of charge, but also menacing, due to his mysterious activities and obvious power over those around him. Joanna Kulig’s Ania offers a sweetness and innocence, her relationship with Tom one that both hints at an opportunity for a better life, as well as representing something akin to the paternal relationship Tom could have shared with his daughter.
The Woman In The Fifth is not a fast-paced film; it is a meandering story to be savoured – one in which the journey is more important than the destination. The location, cinematography and lead performances make for an entertaining film, although after an intriguing build up, one does wonder if more could have been done to bring a more satisfying final act. Certainly not a film for viewers whose enjoyment depends on having all the answers by the final curtain.
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