Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Kristin Scott Thomas, Joanna Kulig
Plot: A college lecturer goes to Paris seeking solace from a scandal. There he meets a mysterious woman who may be connected to a series of murders.
Kristin Scott Thomas is apparently the go-to actress if you need to globally commercialise an arty French film. Tell No One, I’ve Loved you So Long and Sarah’s Key have all featured Scott Thomas at or near the top of their bill. Whereas these films had her speaking in the French tongue, surprisingly her character in The Woman in the Fifth has a posh English accent, although on this occasion she is half-Hungarian, half-French.
Tom Ricks (Hawke), an American literature professor, arrives in Paris from Minnesota, intending to be near his six-year-old daughter Chloé (Julie Papillon). When he arrives at his ex-wife Nathalie’s (Delphine Chuillot) apartment, he finds her to be very hostile and she tells Tom to leave due to a restraining order and calls the police. Having got onto a bus, Tom falls asleep and wakes in the outskirts of Paris, only to discover that his luggage and money has been stolen. He wanders into a cafe which doubles as a hotel – he convinces the owner Sezer (Samir Guesmi) to give him a room as long as he eventually pays the bill. After a day or two, Sezer asks Tom whether he can pay, but when he doesn’t receive assurances, gives Tom a job as a night guard in a gloomy, basement office for 50 Euros a night. Tom is invited to a writers’ gathering, where he meets Margit Kadar – they chat briefly before she asks him to come round to her apartment in the fifth arrondissement at 5pm, twice a week, no questions asked.
Meanwhile, Tom tries to see Chloé whenever he can, by watching from afar or having a brief conversation through the school gates. He starts writing a long letter to her and begins work on a new novel while he is on the night shift. When Tom goes to see Margit at her apartment, they start a relationship and mainly talk about his worthiness as a writer. Tom also begins to have an illicit affair with Sezer’s Polish wife Ania (Kulig) and has his life threatened by Omar (Mamadou Minte) who lives next door to his hotel room, as he saw Tom and Ania sleeping together on the roof. They had previously had an altercation over Omar’s apparent reluctance to flush the toilet that they share. When Omar is found dead, Tom becomes the prime suspect especially as the police find the note given to him by Omar that they believe Tom actually wrote They also disclose a revelation about Margit that throws Tom’s life into utter chaos. Sezer is found to be the culprit and Tom is subsequently released from custody, but then Chloé goes missing and he goes to see Margit to find the truth and hopefully, his daughter.
The Woman in the Fifth is quite an oddity. There’s a very arty feel about the whole film (well, we are in Paris after all) even though the trailer suggests otherwise. Not a great deal happens until the final twenty minutes or so – we merely follow Ethan Hawke’s character Tom as he familiarises himself with the streets of the city, meeting a hotchpotch of characters, each with their own agendas. Even though there is supposed to be an air of mystery throughout the film, there’s only a sense of aimless wandering in a foreign country – it’s more like Lost in Translation but without the comedy. Having said that, it is a relief to be able to see a different side to Paris, one that A Prophet showed – away from the bright lights, upmarket cafés and museums. Although we do catch a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower in the background it isn’t a Hollywood-tourist-landmark-checklist that we have grown accustomed to in recent years. The transplantation of the action from the famous centre to a rundown part of town is clearly designed to reflect Tom’s state of mind.
Ethan Hawke speaks mostly in a lazy American-French accent, although about half of the film is in English. His character Tom is hard to like – he watches his daughter from afar almost in a creepy way and appears to be rude to anyone who offers him help or tries to be nice. Hawke doesn’t really convince here, although to be fair the screenplay doesn’t offer him the opportunity to try a little drama. Kristin Scott Thomas has little to do, despite being the subject of the film’s title. She is supposed to be enigmatic, yet this merely involves smoking cigarettes and looking into middle distance as all writers are obliged to, of course. Joanna Kulig, who has the only other significant role is underused but shines in her bit-part role as Tom’s muse. Pawel Pawlikowski’s direction is solid enough, although there are too many pretentious shots of a forest which promise much in the way of a thunderous revelation, but instead appear to be shoved in merely to reflect Tom’s creative thoughts as he writes for his daughter.
The Woman in the Fifth is a muddled patchwork that asks many questions but leaves most of them unanswered. There is meant to be some kind of M. Night Shyamalan-style nuclear bombshell towards the end, but instead you’re left with the feeling that it’s actually just a damp squib of a firework.