For some, The Woman in the Fifth is like the lullaby you hear before a nightmare: dark, foreboding, but still alarmingly beautiful. For others, it is like the lullaby you hear before you slip, confused, into a midday nap in your theater seat.
Written and directed by award-winning Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski (who you might best recognize as the first director to guide Emily Blunt in lesbian love), The Woman in the Fifth has a global look but a Polish heart. This country's cinema is known for its slow, contemplative style -- for posing questions that it never promises to answer.
For an American viewer used to Hollywood's reliable narrative continuity, this can be a bit jarring. But give it time, and this masterful film may just win you over.
The Woman in the Fifth
is set in the city Pawlikowski himself calls home: Paris. Ethan Hawke plays Tom Ricks, an author and academicstruggling to pick up the pieces of a recently shattered life
. He arrives in Paris -- with a stuffed giraffe toy in tow -- to find his estranged wife and daughter. His wife's restraining order against him hints at a violent past that is never fully addressed; we get only hints when the daughter asks if Tom has been in prison, and he says no, only the hospital.
Rebuffed and robbed after he falls asleep on the bus, Tom disembarks at the end of the line and engages a bed in a seedy hotel. When he can't pay, "the boss," Sezer, employs him to sit in a room in the middle of the night and let people through a locked door when they request "Monsieur Monde" (in French, this translates amusingly to Mr. World). The flickering of his single lightbulb and the smears of blood on the floor are Tom's only hint at what is happening at the end of the hallway.
As the despondent writer, Hawke is particularly engaging: Behind his almost comical Coke-bottle glasses, his eyes project sorrow (the cry-zing to Tyra Banks' smizing). The French dialogue gives his voice a richer, husky tone (more Willem Dafoe), and his once-smooth forehead is now deeply lined. He looks lost among the film's bleak settings: the decaying walls, the dirty tile, the barren trees trimmed of all signs of life.
Two women enter the narrative as potential rescuers: Kristin Scott Thomas portrays Margit Kadar, the sultry and seductive widow of a Hungarian writer. Polish actress Joanna Kulig plays Ania, the sweet and desperate server at Tom's hotel who reads passages from his one novel aloud to him in her native tongue.
Scott Thomas plays up her femme-fatale role, reminiscent of Anne Bancroft in The Graduate: commanding, experienced, enticing, but clearly troubled. For English speakers, her dialogue is a welcomed poetic break from the flatly translated French. She describes herself as a "confused mongrel," lamenting that because she "likes to travel in style" she has to stay put on her meager translator's salary.
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There's a recognizably Hitchcockian nature to the way Pawlikowski demands that we identify with his flawed protagonist - and to the resulting confusion, alienation, and even guilt. This complete, all-encompassing identification - drawing you into a world of melancholy music, languid pacing, and wild imagery - is what gives it that lullaby quality. Even though your eyes never closed, you may feel a strange sense of restfulness as the credits roll.