The Woman in the Fifth 2011 ★★★½

Straddling the line between remaining true to Douglas Kennedy’s original novel and venturing off into director Pawel Pawlikowski’s languid style of filmmaking, this big screen adaptation of The Woman in the Fifth is an enigmatic and fluidly paced film that is both a peculiar, character-driven drama and an elusively curious psychological thriller that features a wealth of fine, unshowy performances.

Ethan Hawke plays Tom Ricks, a troubled American writer who has travelled to Paris to, he claims, look after his daughter while his estranged wife (Delphine Chuillot) works. After breaking his court-appointed exclusion order, misplacing his luggage and being continuously denied access to his daughter Chloé, Tom finds himself penniless and alone, staying in a squalid hotel but unable to pay the rent. Hired by the shady landlord to lock himself away for six hours at night, watching a CCTV monitor and mysteriously letting strangers in to the room next door, Tom finds himself a prisoner of his own imagination, searching for material for the follow up to his moderately successful novel, which he promises will be popular. Coinciding with his night job, he begins an affair with the mystifying and alluring Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas), a sensual, bilingual woman who puts his unsteady, turbulent emotions temporarily at rest. But who is she, and what is her secret?

After building up a series of plot strings and characters, presenting a seemingly straightforward narrative trajectory, Pawlikowski slowly begins to toy with expectation, offering distractions to a story that rarely does what it apparently sets out to do. Mixing an unclear relationship between reality and fantasy, elements themselves that are never made particularly clear, the film knowingly goes off on tangent, exploring Tom’s fragmented and tangible relationships with those around him, setting the audience up for a dénouement that toys with everything that has come before it. Working again with cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski, who imbued his previous film My Summer of Love (2004) with a vibrant luminosity, Pawlikowski films Paris with a muted, airy, often beguiling sensibility, focusing predominantly on the French capitals’ rarely captured seedy underside, which helps sustain a haunting sense of tension made palpable by the various obscurities within the story.

Although at times frustrating, The Woman in the Fifth is at it’s strongest when it becomes entangled within Tom’s increasingly disintegrated mental state, focusing predominantly on what he, and indeed we, perceive as the truth. Mirroring his inability to focus on his writing abilities, Pawlikowski’s film teases the audience with a variety of directions that either build to unfortunately easy conclusions or ultimately lead nowhere, delivering a finale that is both swift and hypnotic, mixing intrigue with whiffs of perplexity.

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