Genre: Thriller/Suspense Director: Pawel Pawlikowski Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Ethan Hawke, Joanna Kulig, Samir Guesmi, Delphine Chuillot, Julie Papillon, Geoffrey Carey, Mamadou Minte Runtime: 1 hr 23 mins Rating: M18 (Sexual Scenes and Some Coarse Language) Released By: Cathay-Keris Films Official Website: http://womaninthefifth-movie.com/
Opening Day: 6 September 2012
Synopsis: Based on the best-selling novel by Douglas Kennedy. American writer Tom Ricks arrives in Paris to be closer to his daughter, Chloe, who recently moved there with her mother. Completely broke, he accepts a job as a night guard. Down in a basement, his only task is to push a button when a bell rings. The tranquility of the night, he hopes, will help him focus on a letter to his daughter. Soon, he starts a romance with Margit, a mysterious and elegant widow who sets some strange rules to their meetings: she will only see him at her apartment, at 5pm sharp, twice a week, and he's to ask no questions about her work, her past, her life... When the police accuses him of murdering his neighbour, Tom tries to use his weekly visits to Margit's apartment as an alibi, only to find that nobody has lived at the address for the past 15 years....
If you’re the sort of viewer who needs a tidy ending to a movie, then avoid ‘The Woman in the Fifth’; but if you have a higher threshold for ambiguity and loose ends, then you’re likely to enjoy this enigmatic arthouse thriller a lot more. Adapted from Douglas Kennedy’s novel by Polish-born filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, it is a film of two halves that doesn’t coalesce as neatly as it should by the time it concludes, but has enough atmosphere along the way to hoodwink its audience.
Indeed, an eerie sense of dread pervades the entire film, beginning with American novelist and professor Tom Ricks’ (Ethan Hawke) arrival in Paris to presumably settle down with his French wife and daughter. But right after telling the immigration officer that, he barges into his wife’s apartment and demands to see his daughter – leaving only when his wife calls the police to enforce the restraining order that he’s been served with. Yes, despite his unassuming demeanour, it’s clear right from the start that there is something wrong with Tom.
And Pawlikowski keeps the focus squarely on Tom, as he moves into a flophouse whose thuggish owner Sezer (Samir Guesmi) fixes him up with a job as a night watchman in a dingy building where illicit activities are likely to be happening. In between his shifts, he stalks his daughter playing in a park and writes letters to her at work and in a café – these letters pretty much a surreal fantasy of father and daughter in a dense wooded forest. Though not deliberately said, Pawlikowski is drawing his audience into Tom’s fractured mind, and the picture he paints of a man calm on the surface but disturbed on the inside is disconcerting to say the least.
There is false comfort in the arrival of the enigmatic Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas), whom Tom meets at a gathering of literary folks and starts making regular visits to her apartment in the titular arrondisement. Margit suggests that his present circumstances could very well be inspiration for him to write an even better novel than his first, and just like that, becomes his muse. This is however not meant to be a reaffirming story, and what hope you may have of Margit helping Tom to find his groove back dissipates when his bullying neighbour (Mamadou Minté) turns up dead and the investigation leads to an even more disturbing truth about Margit.
As we had warned at the beginning, there is not much of a payoff at the end –if you have to know, the truth behind said neighbour’s murder is never revealed. The open-endedness will certainty frustrate many viewers, but Pawlikowski is of course not a daft filmmaker not to know this, so it’s a creative decision you’ll either respect or dislike. Nonetheless, it is clear that he loses his grip towards the end as scenes become more random and even confusing, leaving probably even the most patient viewer annoyed.
Through it all, it is the cast that makes this subdued psychodrama work. Ethan Hawke gets probably his meatiest role in recent years, and rewards the confidence with a riveting portrayal of a man tortured by inner anguish and disillusionment. Kristin Scott Thomas is mesmerising as always, but her vaguely drawn character does her no favours. One wishes Pawlikowski would have given Hawke and Thomas more screen time together though, just so that their unusual relationship can get fleshed out more.
Like we’ve said, ‘The Woman in the Fifth’ isn’t your typical mystery thriller. It’s more an arthouse drama all right, offering more questions than answers, and certainly not recommended for viewers who need neat resolutions at the end of the film. But for the more open-minded, it packs a tight sense of paranoia and intrigue and leaves you thinking about its psychological undertones. Liking the film is a bit of a stretch, but you’ll respect what Pawlikowski has attempted.
(This intriguing psychodrama that offers more questions than answers is – we warn you – a challenging film to watch)