|Ethan Hawke looks like how I imagine James Franco will when he's in his forties, yet young Ethan Hawke doesn't look anything like James Franco does now. This thought is a thousand times more interesting than The Woman In The Fifth.|
For its first two-thirds, Pawel Pawlikowski's The Woman In The Fifth is an effectively uneasy, if unimaginative mood piece about Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke), a writer and lecturer who travels to Paris to spend time with his daughter, despite the restraining order taken out against him by his ex-wife (Delphine Chuillot). The reason for the breakdown of their marriage remains unexplained, so all we know is that something went very, very wrong, and at some point his wife took their daughter and made a break for it. The lack of any concrete details makes the early scenes in which Tom tries to see his daughter very uncomfortable, and the film manages to maintain that air of disorientation long after Tom begins a descent into a weird and dark Parisian underworld.
Whilst trying to hide from the police, Tom has his luggage and money stolen, leaving him with nothing but a few Euros, his passport and a stuffed giraffe. He stumbles into a cafe and enquires about renting a room from the owner, Sezer (Samir Guesmi), who offers him a job to help him pay his way. The job requires Tom to sit in a room for six hours every night, his only task using the intercom to let people in and out of the secret bunker that he is in charge of supervising. He is never told what is happening in the bunker, and he never finds out. All he knows is that it involves blood. Again, the scenes in which Tom waits in the bunker are weird and off-kilter, particularly thanks to the excellent sound design which heightens Tom's sense of isolation.
The final strand of the film revolves around Tom's relationship with Margrit (Kristin Scott Thomas), the widow of a little-read Hungarian writer who encourages Tom to begin work on his second novel. She does this initially by giving him one of the classier handjobs in cinema history, then proceeds to slightly more ephemeral encouragement by telling him that all the suffering that he is going through is just grist to the mill as far as his writing goes. He needs to know tragedy before he can create anything of substance, and he should treasure his life as it stands because it will lead him to greatness. This is, of course, fatuous nonsense, but the nebulous aspect of the relationship between Tom and Margit adds a frisson to the film, particularly once Tom starts sleeping with Ania (Joanna Kulig), Sezer's girlfriend, placing him in danger from both his obviously criminal landlord and the mysterious new woman in his life.
All of these aspects of the film are, more or less, pretty solid, and had the film proceeded as it had, creating an eerie sense of creeping dread and disjointedness, then it might have wound up being a perfectly fine, if unspectacular, film overall. It really captures the sense that Tom is a man stuck in a situation which he doesn't fully understand, even though it is almost certainly one of his own making.
However, The Woman In The Fifth makes a none too graceful swan dive from sort-of-okay to dreadful in its third act, when Tom is pulled in by the police as a suspect in the murder of his neighbour. He tells them that he was with Margit at the time that the crime took place, and is dutifully informed that Margit committed suicide. In 1991. It is more or less at this point that, had I been watching the film on my own, and not in a cinema with other people, I would have stood up, thrown my hands in the air, and shouted, "Oh, fuck off!"
Yes, The Woman In The Fifth hinges on one of the hoariest twists going; one of the characters being a figment of another's imagination. Whilst the twist in and of itself is not the greatest crime the film commits, the unwarranted seriousness with which it treats that twist renders it completely unpalatable. The subject matter of the film is undeniable lurid and pulpy - add some fight scenes and re-cast the lead and you'd have a slightly worse than average Liam Neeson film - but the solemnity of the treatment removes all potential for it to actually be pulpy fun, resulting in a film which is too dumb to take seriously, yet which takes itself too seriously for it to be genuinely enjoyable.
This creates a paradoxically situation in which the film might actually be better if it was worse. If it wasn't so well directed, or at least was directed by someone who better understood the nature of their own material, or if the performances were broader and less intense (both Thomas and Hawke do very good work, considering) then it could have been a fun, silly little film. Instead, The Woman In The Fifth winds up feeling insulting because it either doesn't realise how stupid it is, or because it does, but believes that its audience is even dumber.