Directed and written by Pawel Pawlikowski, The Woman In The Fifth is a French-British-Polish mystery thriller based on the novel by American novelist Douglas Kennedy. As an adaptation of this deeply detailed novel, the film is a pensive and psychological drama, but it doesn’t quite fill you in on everything as you are constantly left to detect what’s real and what’s not.
The Woman In The Fifth centres around a college lecturer named Tom Wicks (Ethan Hawke) who flees to Paris to move closer to his six-year-old daughter Chloe (Julie Papillon), currently living with his estranged wife Nathalie (Delphine Chuillot), as he attempts to escape an implied troubling past couple of years. When robbed of all his possessions on his journey home, Tom takes a job as a watchman for a local crime boss, Sezer (Samir Guesmi), to earn his keep. Here he finds friendship in one of the waitresses, Ania (Joanna Kulig), and eventually begins a relationship with a mysterious widow named Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas), who will only meet Tom at her apartment in the fifth arrondissement. This is when Tom’s world starts to falter, as his relationship with Margit triggers a string of inexplicable events that begin to take control of his life.
The Woman In The Fifth is a visually appealing film but, set in Paris, there emerges a side to the city that we don’t often see in films. Tom sleeps in a dingey hotel room in a miserable suburban district, and walks down the city’s back alleys and deserted side streets; the one shot we see of the Eiffel Tower is when it stands as a blur in the background, and this is as close as we get to the romantic and elegant city full of pleasantness that we are used to. This setting is an integral part to the film, as this backdrop becomes a blur to the world that Tom is situated in, fading away from a reality that we are comfortable with into a sort of dream like state that feels slightly haunting.
This gloomy yet dreamy feel is complimented with a great score by Max de Wardener, and is further reflected in between scenes when the director flicks to the occasional stunning shots of a forest, in which the camera focuses on a variety of wild life living there. As we diverge from reality to dream we are first made to question the reality of what’s going on during The Woman In The Fifth, as it is implies that this forest is Tom’s imaginary place for his daughter to play in, which he is creating in the book he is currently writing.
This change in mental state becomes a recurring manner, but this is both a flaw and a quality of the film as everything is implied rather than explained, and it is therefore never made obvious to the audience as to what is real and what is dream. On a whole, the plot throughout The Woman In The Fifth flows quite well; whilst you are constantly left to wonder what will happen next and question how far things will eventually go, it’s easy to make sense of what’s happening at the time. It’s only when the film comes to an end that it falls apart, as you eventually realise that nothing has been explained at all, and you are again left to figure it out for yourself.
This is where the flaws really outshine the film’s strengths, as there is far too much left over to simply work out and enjoy the film without thought. For one example, we are constantly reminded that Tom is mentally ill and are told that he has previously received some form of medical attention. By his own admission, this is the only thing we can be certain of, but in the end we have to question whether he even left the hospital at all, as Tom comments that: “I feel like the real me is somewhere else…and the me that’s here is like a sad double.” Again, we are given a hint as to what may be really happening, but you have to look at these scenes closely to find it out.
In some sense, however, this is also one of the strongest features of the film, as it’s hard to disprove The Woman In The Fifth being a great mystery thriller when it really does get you thinking. In this sense there is a lot of hidden metaphors to be found that, when stitched together, give a really strong and in-depth story line that cannot be faulted. For another example, the job that Tom takes, where he is locked in a cell writing and wondering what the noises are from next door, and the room where he sleeps constantly alone, are a keen metaphor for the hospitalised room that he is actually imprisoned in. We must therefore question whether these implications are done purposefully and that it is indeed a truly clever film, or whether there was just simply a lot of unexplained information that leave the audience far too out of play to understand it.
Ethan Hawke is brilliant in his role; his performance is constantly strong and engaging, and it’s also easy to sympathise with his character because of this. Kristin Scott Thomas, too, is a very alluring and seductive actress who fits her role quite perfectly, and their chemistry on-screen together is truly believable. If not for this connection between these actors the film would not pull you in as it does, and it consequently deserves a great credit for making you believe that the situations throughout the film, whether they are or not, are all in fact real.
Originally opened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2011, The Woman In The Fifth was released in the UK in February of this year and has this month been released on DVD, whilst over in the US it has just opened its first week in its nationwide theatrical release. I would recommend seeing this one, and maybe then you will be able to answer some questions for me, or if not then it seems that the book is definitely worth a read.