Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke, Boyhood) is an American novelist who has moved to Paris in the hopes of being closer to his young daughter. When he arrives, his ex-wife Nathalie (Delphine Chuillot, Mozart's Sister) panics and calls the police. Tom is bewildered by this reaction, but flees the scene and begins looking for a place to stay while he concocts a plan. He requests a room at a seedy hotel, but is unable cover the rent (his first novel did well, but his second isn't finished and he's run out of money). The hotel manager offers an arrangement: Tom can have a free room (plus a few extra bucks) if he'll agree to serve as a night watchman. The job involves sitting inside a locked room, watching a video monitor and keeping an eye out for suspicious activity.
Later, Tom goes to a party and meets a woman named Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas, Random Hearts), a French-Polish widow who was once married to another struggling novelist. “I was his muse,” she says, and she seems interested in resuming that old profession. Tom doesn't put up much of a struggle: he could use a good muse, particularly one who seems to willing to invite him into her bed. The new relationship doesn't stop him from starting another affair with Ania (Joanna Kulig, Ida), the Polish barmaid who works at the hotel and who seems to be trapped in an unhappy relationship with the hotel manager.
It's not exactly the most immediately gripping set-up, but The Woman in the Fifth is more compelling and suspenseful than it sounds. Each new scene adds a small mystery to be solved: Why is Tom's wife afraid of him? How did his marriage fall apart? What kind of shady dealings is the hotel manager involved in? What is Margit's motive for giving so much of herself to Tom so quickly? One of the film's chief pleasures is the way it keeps us guessing about what kind of film it is. Are we watching the story of a befuddled everyman who's stumbling into a situation he doesn't understand, or are we watching the story of a dangerous individual suffering from severe mental problems? Everything is presented from Hawke's perspective, and there are frequent indications that his perspective may be an unreliable one. But just how unreliable? Is it a matter of memory loss, or psychosis? Or does someone want to make him think he's suffering from memory loss or psychosis?
The film provides (perhaps not entirely convincing) answers, but these are also cryptic things that need to be unraveled and chewed on after the credits roll. Meanwhile, director Pawel Pawlikowski (whose Oscar-nominated Ida is a quiet masterpiece) supplies a hypnotic sense of unease and an abundance of compelling imagery. The tone often resembles Roman Polanski's Frantic – another story of a confused American everyman caught in the middle of a strange situation in Paris – but in this case, the confused American everyman may very well be the perpetrator, not the victim.
Hawke (who speaks in French for a large portion of his screentime) does fine work in the central role, conveying a sense of shaggy relatability while still capturing those dark undertones that keep us guessing about his real motives. I also loved Thomas' turn as his enigmatic muse. She's at the core of a lot of the film's mysteries, and there are even questions to be asked about whether or not she actually exists. Still, Thomas makes her a fascinating person (or at least a fascinating manifestation). She carries herself with a world-weary intelligence, and her handful of love scenes with Hawke suggest a serious power imbalance: there's almost a mother-child dynamic at work in the sweet but patronizing way she treats him.
The thing I like most about The Woman in the Fifth is its heavy reliance on symbolism and visual storytelling. There's a shot that directly recalls Bergman's Persona, and it's not just a cute reference but rather an indication of what's happening. There are occasional images of a shadowy figure walking through the woods, which initially feel like odd atmospheric touches but may very well be essential to understanding the film's conclusion. There's a warm dialogue scene sporting a near-monochromatic palette that adds a dash of old-fashioned horror, and a handful of long shots in which essential details are tucked away in the corner of the frame. To borrow a critical blurb I once saw on a poster for another film, “It's a real movie-movie.”
The Woman in the Fifth
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 85 minutes
Release Year: 2012