We need movies like The Woman in the Fifth, because they remind us how intensely on-fire Ethan Hawke can be. He stars here as Tom Ricks, in a grungy mystery-thriller that starts off as an atmospheric noir and quickly — the film’s barely a tick over 80 minutes — descends into a prickly little personality study. The writer-director, Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love), has adapted Douglas Kennedy’s same-named novel with unshrinking ambiguity, allowing Hawke to sink in and fire off one mixed signal after another while never losing the compassion underneath. It’s a satisfying move.
Tom’s an American novelist with one Pulitzer Prize-shortlisted work under his belt. The film opens as he relocates to Paris, in an attempt to smooth things over with his bitter ex-wife, Nathalie (Delphine Chuillot), so that he can see his daughter, Chloé (Julie Papillon), on a more frequent basis. Things go poorly from the very beginning, he and Nathalie so clearly separated in every possible fashion that they even speak to each other in different languages. (Tom switches between English and French throughout the film, but you’d at least think that two people who’ve had a kid together would’ve settled on a consistent language with which to communicate.)
Turns out that Tom has a restraining order against the couple’s daughter. Like most of the film, the details aren’t fully divulged, but we get the picture once it takes the ex-wife all of 60 seconds to call the cops on Tom as he somberly familiarizes himself with Chloé’s dreamy bedroom. Before he eludes the police, he momentarily comes across his daughter on the sidewalk, and is pleased to see that she now wears glasses, just like her daddy.
Tom ends up getting his belongings lifted on a public bus, which ultimately winds him up in a seedy motel that’s a welcome subversion to the romantic, beguiling Paris we usually see in the movies. (Look no further than the very recent — and very romantic — Midnight in Paris.) Bereft of money, Tom explains his situation to the building’s owner, Sezer (Samir Guesmi), who’s the kind of guy that leaves the top two or three buttons on his dress shirts wide open. Sezer cordially complies, demanding only that Tom fork over his passport until he can come up with money for the room.
With work on his new novel coming decidedly not-swimmingly, Tom’s luck with gathering the cash is unsurprisingly poor, and he soon amends his debt by agreeing to work a night-shift job for Sezer. The position requires him to sit in an underground office and keep tabs, via a hidden camera, on the people who come and go from Sezer’s establishment. (Legit visitors will ask to see “Mr. Monde,” his boss informs him.)
It’s clear from all of this that Pawlikowski has done his genre homework, as the sight of Tom observing, voyeur-like, a covert camera — and, soon after, overhearing disturbing noises from the adjacent room — recalls a number of Hitchcock films, as well as many others from some of the genre’s titans. Pawlikowski’s individual assurance, however, is never doubted — if his script is a little neat and short-clipped to produce much lingering resonance, his directorial oversight is always chilling and evocative, giving the film a gripping sense of swelling dread.
We get more hints of earlier noirs through the character of Margit Kadar (Kristin Scott Thomas), the mysterious widow of a Hungarian novelist. She meets Tom at a literary party and a spooky affair follows suit. She used to work as her husband’s translator, and she uses this I-can-be-your-muse effect to suck Tom in as well. Meanwhile, another woman in Tom’s life — his boss’s mistress, Ania (Joanna Kulig, in her Elles follow-up) — offers a more traditionally warm relationship option (though I suppose playing around with a mobster-type’s girl isn’t exactly traditional).
That so much is stuffed into this brief film probably contributes to the narrowness of feeling that accompanies the denouement. It’s psychologically sinister stuff, and Hawke, as ever, is penetratingly aggressive, but it lacks the narrative conviction of the top-tier work of some of the film’s forerunners. The Woman in the Fifth remains good for a lot of things, though — the mucky, unkempt vision of Paris, the exceptionally illustrative portrait of a character’s psyche, and, more simply, the mere fact that it features two people named Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas.
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