I have to ask: okay, what was that? Pawel Pawlikowski’s film adaptation of Douglas Kennedy’s novel The Woman in the Fifth is one of the most head-scratchingest films I’ve ever seen; it’s been fifteen hours since I watched it, and I’m still puzzling over it. While some things are readily understandable, others require a lot of thought, and I welcome that. If you’re expecting The Woman in the Fifth to be wrapped up nicely with a big, pretty bow at the end, this is not the movie for you. However, if you’re looking for something a little more challenging in a movie, have at it with two hands gripped firmly on the tiller.
When I saw that Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas were the stars of this movie, and after reading a short synopsis, I honestly couldn’t wait to see it. Having now experienced it, I feel like it needs a second viewing in order to fully understand the events and characters. On the surface, it’s fairly common: disgraced American professor Tom Ricks (Hawke) moves to Paris to be near his ex-wife Nathalie (Delphine Chuillot) and their daughter Chloé (Julie Papillon). During his first hours in Paris, Nathalie calls the police on Tom for violating a restraining order, beginning his life on the run and leading him into a café/boardinghouse run by gangster Sezer (Samir Guesmi) and his girlfriend Ania (Joanna Kulig). While looking for a job, he meets an elegant, beautiful woman named Margit (Scott Thomas) at a literary party, where she and Tom make an instant connection which culminates in a physical relationship.
Like I said: on the surface, it’s fairly common. But throughout the movie, we start to see more of Tom’s dark side, eventually realizing that he’s not the meek, mild-mannered professor we thought he was. Hawke plays Ricks with the quiet intensity of a man under a gun and hearing the hammer being cocked. By differing turns, he’s a confused expatriate, a man with a serious mean streak, or just at the end of his rope. Regardless, we never know quite what to make of him, and as the ambiguity of films like these dictates, we never will.
I was engrossed from the very beginning, where what seems to be a bloodied, eviscerated human body seems to be slightly out of focus; if that doesn’t grab your attention, I don’t know what will. However, that opening raised my hopes for this movie, and I can’t help feel like it let me down, even if it was only just a little bit. The narrative that Ricks weaves is unreliable; we don’t know what truth, if any, can be gleaned from his actions or his speech. The Woman in the Fifth doesn’t let you down completely, for its ambiguity keeps you guessing as to its true nature. Movies like Session 9, Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, The Others, Don’t Look Now, The Last Broadcast, The Usual Suspects and others where reality is distorted and nothing is what it seems always make a lasting impression on me. The Woman in the Fifth is the very definition of the overused adjective “haunting”; it will bounce around your head for a while before coming to a not-so-peaceful rest.
FINAL GRADE: B+
Reel Film News Movie Review by Eddie Pasa