Paweł Pawlikowski’s The Woman in the Fifth (2011) – starring Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas – is stylishly shot, slickly directed and frustratingly enigmatic. Pawlikowski cut his teeth in documentary filmmaking, forging a name for himself in the 1990s, and remarkably this is only his third feature film to date. Hawke plays Tom Ricks, an American professor and novelist, who arrives in Paris hoping to reconcile with his estranged French wife (Delphine Chuillot) and six-year old daughter, Chloé (Julie Papillon). But when he turns up unannounced at their apartment his wife calls the police, hinting at a violent past.
Tom runs. After falling asleep on a bus he wakes to find his suitcase and wallet have been stolen. He ends up lodging in a squalid café-hotel in one of Paris’s less salubrious suburbs and agrees to work for the hotelier, Sezer (Samir Guesmi) as a night guard in an empty warehouse. Tom is instructed to lock himself in a room with a CCTV camera and not to leave his station until his shift is over. By day, he continues to stalk his daughter and writes her long letters that he never sends.
Things begin to look up, when Tom is recognised by a bookshop owner and invited to a literary salon. Here he meets the enigmatic Margit (Scott Thomas), a husky-voiced beauty who claims she is a translator of books. He visits her apartment in the Fifth Arrondissement (hence the film’s title) and they swiftly become lovers. Margit, the dominant, controlling partner in their intense relationship, seems to offer Tom some release from his turbulent emotions.
Meanwhile, Tom has also become attached to a Polish waitress, Ania (Joanna Kulig) who works in the café. Up to this point, Pawlikowski’s build up of tension and character development has been superb. But as the line between reality and fantasy become increasingly blurred, so too does our engagement with The Woman in the Fifth. Pawlikowski uses only the main elements of Douglas Kennedy’s novel, providing a looser, more ambiguous interpretation of one man’s psychological disintegration.
As well as keeping his audience guessing, Pawlikowski delights in the symbolic. We see the world from Tom’s bespectacled perspective and gradually realise that his grasp on reality is as impaired as his eyesight. The room where Tom spends his nights on guard duty is like a solitary cell – bare except for a table and chair, CCTV screen and a flickering light-bulb. As Tom tries to write, he is disturbed by sinister noises outside and, we realise, he is as much a prisoner of his mind as he is confined to the room.
The Woman in the Fifth is a provocative, courageous and often gripping film. There are some terrific central performances (Kulig is especially memorable) and Ryszard Lenczewski’s atmospheric cinematography perfectly captures the seedier side of Paris. Those filmgoers who prefer a linear narrative, however, may be put off by its themes of alienation, deliberate obliqueness and ambiguous ending.