The Woman in the Fifth September 23, 2016
The Woman in the Fifth’s leading character clearly struggles in the deciphering of the lines that separate fantasy and reality, but to untangle the mess that is his psyche is a bore I’d rather not stress myself out with extricating. Because the film, written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, is the sort of pretentious art house dreck that gives so much weight to that godforsakenly overused cinematic device better known as ambiguity that forgotten is the more intriguing mood enhancer better known as intrigue. It’s a low-rent version of The Tenant, only the horrors aren’t so cutting and Pawlikowski, unlike Roman Polanski, is too indirect, too flighty, to ensure that his mysteries provoke instead of tire.
In the movie, Ethan Hawke stars as Tom Ricks, an American novelist who may as well be the living embodiment of a person down on their luck. Though supposedly recovered from a mental illness that has taken away the stability of the last few years, he’s otherwise psychologically floating and severely depressed. When we first meet him, he’s just moved to Paris to be closer to his ex-wife (Delphine Chuillot), who despises him, and their elementary-aged daughter, who’s in the dark regarding why she hasn’t seen her father in so long. The jump to France is his only hope to reconnect with the family he’s lost touch with, but days into his stay does he find that not a fragment of hope lingers in the air.
Broke and desperate, he takes a night guard job at a seedy hostel, which pays decently for an occupation that requires him to do so little. It’s ideal for a man of his caliber (his only task is to push a button to let people through one of the building’s covert entrances), and the possibility of having ample time to write could potentially help him piece his life back together.
But things begin taking bizarre — and growingly unsettling — turns when he starts having an affair with an elegant widow (Kristin Scott Thomas). Only willing to meet at five pm twice a week in her chic apartment, with no questions to be asked about her personal life, the woman gives as much new meaning to Tom’s existence as it brings inexplicable tragedy. Whether she’s a figment of his imagination seems highly likely — her manner of speech, her enigmatic actions, seem staged, planned — but to declare if such a conclusion is based in fact would spoil the fun of The Woman in the Fifth.
Or maybe it wouldn’t, since the film is decidedly lacking in charge and is cryptic to the point of being baffling. Though Hawke’s performance is skillful, delicately sympathetic and noticeably affected by something unknown, little else about the film is as easy to grasp as what Tom might be feeling at this particularly hard time in his life. The titular force of glamour is sketched too thinly to provide any sort of emotional attachment (but the lithe Scott Thomas is a sensation no matter the role), and the movie’s storyline, either characterized as a character study or a horror film (?), is always swimming, never to be made compelling.
Obvious is Pawlikowski’s dedication to earlier pictures immersed in their focusing on a character’s going insane — we can see shades of Repulsion and Hour of the Wolf here, however watered down they are — but he’s too reliant on understated metaphors, on unseeable hidden meanings, to inspire any kind of reaction from even the most dedicated of a viewer. Its eighty minutes drag until we’ve concluded that it claws its way to the finish line rather than passing an interesting breaking point. C-