The Woman in the Fifth is very much a multinational movie. Directed by a Pole, Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love), it’s leads are an American, Ethan Hawke and a Brit, Kristin Scott Thomas. And the whole thing is set in Paris (the fifth of the title, refers to the fifth arrondissement, an area of Paris, where Scott Thomas’s eponymous character lives).
The film follows Tom Ricks, an American writer and professor of literature, arriving in Paris. He is moving to the city, he tells the guard at customs, to be with his wife and daughter. But things aren’t quite as they seem beneath his successful veneer – we gradually learn that he has written one novel and nothing since; his wife wants nothing to do with him and hates or fears him enough to call the police when he comes to the flat. The professorship may just be a flat lie – it’s clear that money is short, and gets shorter when he is robbed on the bus. Ricks ends up in a run-down hotel, and by this point it’s clear that he’s penniless and pitiful, a once-promising writer whose prospects are quickly fading, estranged from his family, and turning in on himself.
A series of threads are established – Ricks attempts to get visiting rights to see his daughter; he starts working for the man whose hotel he is staying in, sitting in a room all night watching a CCTV camera. He must give entry to concrete rooms beneath a bridge to anyone who knocks and knows the password. He meets the eponymous woman at a bookseller’s party – she is Margit a French-Romanian translator with a tragic past and they fall into an affair with barely a word shared between them. These threads are variously picked up and put down, threaten to cross at points or tie up, without ever really doing so. A feeling of mystery and paranoia is cleverly built and sustained – why won’t Ricks’s wife talk to him? What‘s going on in the concrete rooms beneath the bridge? What does Margit want with Ricks? Though these strands are intriguing, the frustration of the film is that few of them are ever resolved in a satisfying way.
A criticism of many films these days is that they make everything very obvious to the audience, guiding them by the hand through the twists of the plot. This is not an accusation that can be made about The Woman in the Fifth. In fact, the opposite is true, it is opaque to the point of frustration. A film with ambiguity can be great – it inspires debate, but you need to feel that even if the meaning behind the events isn’t clear, the director has a hypothesis of their own. At times, this doesn’t feel like it’s the case.
The strengths of the Woman in the Fifth are its beautiful cinematography of Paris – ignoring the classic Parisian locations, it feels like a film made by someone who knows the less-visited parts of the city, and also the way the atmosphere builds up. It weaknesses lie in its confused narrative and in the accents of the leads – Hawke speaks French perfectly well but with no attempt at a French accent. While it’s not unbelievable that this would be a trait of his character, you end up spending a lot of the film wondering if he actually knows French himself or has just learned the words he needs by rote. Kristin Scott Thomas’s character is an underwritten half French, half Romanian, educated in England and, presumably confused herself, she goes for super posh Brit with the occasional hint of eastern Europe. It’s all a bit off-putting.
There are some interesting ideas going on in The Woman in the Fifth, and probably a really good film to be made out of them. Unfortunately, it’s not quite this one.