American writer Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke) comes to Paris desperate to put his life together again and win back the love of his estranged wife and daughter. When things don't go according to plan, he ends up in a shady hotel in the suburbs, having to work as a night guard to make ends meet. Then Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas), a beautiful, mysterious stranger walks into his life and things start looking up. Their passionate and intense relationship triggers a string of inexplicable events...as if an obscure power was taking control of his life.
Watching Polish-born writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski’s drama is akin to poring over a jigsaw puzzle and discovering several key pieces are missing so the full picture is maddeningly elusive.
The Woman in the Fifth is set in France but that’s immaterial as the filmmaker creates a strange, menacing and murky world in which Ethan Hawke’s Tom Ricks is the only well-developed character, and even he remains an enigma.
Among the other personas, some may be real while others could be ghosts or figments of Ricks’ imagination: Pawliksowski’s screenplay loosely based on a novel by American author Douglas Kennedy is deliberately and frustratingly opaque.
The film has elements of suspense and is never boring over its 83 minutes but is undone by the director’s propensity to tease, mislead and confound the viewer.
Ricks is an American university literature lecturer who’s also written one novel. In the promising opening he arrives in Paris hoping to reunite with his six-year-old daughter Chloé (Julie Papillon).
His embittered ex-wife Nathalie (Delphine Chuillot) spurns him and threatens to call the cops because he’s violated a restraining order.
Gradually it emerges that Ricks had been treated in hospital for an unspecified illness, a nervous breakdown, perhaps, judging by his increasingly angry, anguished and seemingly paranoid behaviour.
After his wallet and suitcases are stolen while he’s asleep in a bus, Ricks gets a room in a dingy hotel owned by the shady Sezer (Samir Guesmi), who offers him a job as a night watchman at a nearby building where the male callers ask for a mysterious 'Mr Monde".
When he’s not penning a long letter to Chloé and watching the girl from afar, he encounters two women: an alluring, half-French, half-Romanian widow named Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas), who lives in the Fifth Arrondissement, hence the film’s the title; and a friendly young Polish barmaid (Joanna Kulig) who works at the hotel and may or may not be Sezer’s girlfriend.
Tom’s trysts with Margit in her red-hued apartment, the first occurring after minimal foreplay, are surreal as the woman whom he’d just met claims to believe in his literary talents.
Their conversations have a similarly unreal air with lumps of unworldly dialogue, as when he tells her, 'I feel like the real me is somewhere else, somewhere accepting a literary award, watching his wife get dressed, going to his daughter’s piano recital. The me that is here is like a sad double."
Such meditative moments soon give way to a series of bizarre incidents, most of which defy any rational explanation.
Hawke, who speaks passable French, and Scott Thomas are class acts but it’s hard to make rhyme or reason of their characters’ erratic behaviour.
Pawlikowski and his long-time cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski often shoot their subjects from a distance, with blurry objects in the foreground, a pretentiously arty technique which puts a further barrier between the characters and the audience.
Hallucinatory shots of crawling insects and spiders and of a girl lying unconscious in a forest are simply mystifying, like much of this annoyingly elliptical movie.