To say that Tom is down on his luck is an understatement. He has lost his job as a university lecturer on literature and flown to Paris in search of his young daughter, Chloe, and his wife, who has had a restraining order issued against him. His bag is stolen on the bus; he has no money, and is forced to rent a grotty room in a down-and-out Parisian café, owned by a domineering, undoubtedly criminal character called Sezer.
Tom is also the writer of a single novel. He has no faith in it himself, but it clearly shows potential. His passion for writing and for literature seems to have been extinguished by the time we meet him, but he hopes that writing a second novel will bring him some income. In the meantime, Sezer sets him up with a scary, ambiguous night shift in an underground bunker, where he must watch a screen for six hours each night and only allow people to enter if they know the correct ‘password’.
It is at a literary gathering that Tom meets Margit. From the first moment she appears on screen, we erupt in goosebumps. The effect she has on Tom is electric – it might not be love at first sight, but there is something cool, mysterious and effortlessly sensual about Margit that immediately captivates him. From a simple glance through a doorway, he is compelled to follow her on to the balcony. The conversation they have there is tinged with sadness and sinister undertones; she recognises something in Tom instantly and hands him her card, telling him to call ‘any time after four’, before slipping away. Who is this woman? Why does she unsettle us so much?
Ethan Hawke plays Tom, an American literally lost in Paris. Critics, among other quibbles, have complained about his dodgy French accent, but try and put this into perspective. He is playing an outsider, a foreigner who is able to get by in conversation. Surely the American accent adds to the authenticity of the role, and emphasises his isolation. Give him a break – it’s a fine performance.
Even more impressive, though, is Kristin Scott Thomas as the ethereal Margit. It is not the details of her life or the tragedy in her past that fascinates us – these are eventually revealed, but they won’t be what you remember most. It is the constant performance – the cold, removed beauty of this character that startles us. Intelligent, demure and sinister, there is a potent dread and sorrow that pervades the scenes she is in, and permeates throughout the rest of the film in ripples that seem to emanate from her presence.
Consider the first time Tom visits her apartment. He is awkward, and tries to make small talk. He raises the subject of her husband, a Hungarian writer. She indulges him for a short time, but they have no delusions. Both know very well why he is there. The shot that follows is perhaps the finest in the entire film; finally, we have found someone who understands how to film sex. It is sad to think that so many directors believe that the more you show, the more erotic the scene is. The tension in that apartment is almost unbearable, and sex does not diffuse it. Watch closely as Tom tries to kiss Margit, at what point she stops him and undoes his trousers. No detail is shown, and even the sounds of rustling material are muted. The camera focuses on their faces, in one steady, unmoving shot: Tom recoils in shock, closes his eyes, murmurs, almost disintegrating from the overwhelming emotion and physical pleasure of this act. Margit only watches, silently, smiling knowingly as if she were gazing at a small child trying to learn the alphabet. She is in complete control, and knows it.
I am not entirely sure how to describe The Woman In The Fifth; the word ‘strange’ doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. It is a classy movie – the aesthetics and cinematography are top notch (notice the deep reds and blacks that cling to Margit, for example), and the influence of Polish cinema is patent and captivating. Paris is an alien world – behind a romantic façade lie the gray skies, the lonely train tracks, the emotional repression, the tragic aura of mystery and always the looming sense of danger and death. This is a movie that defies rational judgement, as the plot swings from one bizarre event to the next. The major twist about two thirds of the way through had many cynics in the audience scoffing at the screen – I have to admit, I wasn’t completely convinced. But we are in the hands of a director who has complete confidence in himself and in his medium, and by the end, I had a deep respect for his efforts. This movie isn’t perfect, but it is nevertheless peculiar, beguiling and utterly compelling. It takes some skill to blend the genres seen here so effortlessly – from domestic drama to romance to crime thriller and finally entering the realms of the supernatural, this shouldn’t really work. Yet the threads between these genres and the themes on display are as tangible as those woven by spiders and serving to capture insects in the brief interludes within the film, often showing snapshots of nature in its deformed, frightening beauty, focusing in particular on a faraway woodland. Where is it? What do these images mean?
It only really struck me as I left the cinema just how desperately sad this movie is. So bewitched was I by the film’s strangeness, confidence and originality that it took me a while to come to terms with the quiet tragedy that underpins the whole story. Whatever else The Woman In The Fifth explores, it is primarily about suffering and loss, and our need for love and human companionship. It may not be a masterpiece – I would argue its flaws are quite substantial. But for all its strangeness, it is never pretentious. Pawel Pawlikowski is a director who has a story to tell, and does so with flair and imagination, without ever alienating his audience. Surprisingly deep, concisely expressed and including within its short running time glimpses of cinematic genius, The Woman In The Fifth is an unassuming little gem. I highly recommend it.
Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, James Martin (March ’12)