‘The Woman in the Fifth’ is a fine exercise in mood and style

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The Woman in the Fifth
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski
Written by Pawel Pawlikowski
France/Poland/U.K, 2011

The psychological thriller is a fun little genre for it allows, first, the screenwriter and director to get creative with their storytelling by exploring clever, unexpected and unnerving ways for their characters to behave under significant duress and, second, the audience to experience a sense of tension that not only provides effective thrills but takes them down a path an amazing journey where the real takes on another dimension, one that has the protagonist and the audience guessing what might come next. The truth of the matter is that for any psychological tension to be had, there needs to be an emotional angle to the instigating point of conflict. Broken down familial ties is one such avenue filmmakers can easily use as a launchpad to delving into such territory. Director Pawel Pawlikowski invites audiences into the mind of a emotionally distraught Ethan Hawke in The Woman in the Fifth.

Hawke plays Tom Hicks, a character whom the viewer believes to be sufficiently familiar with at the start of the picture, only for the film to offer several instances which aim to throw suspicions off course. Tom is a novelist and a university professor, but where his professional career has witnessed success, his family duties have floundered. His French wife and young daughter live in Paris, where Tom has travelled to at the start of the picture. While chances of making up to his wife are shown to be impossible, it is specifically with his daughter that he wishes to rekindle a relationship. His efforts are quickly thwarted by his ex, who is quick to call the police about his presence in the home. The fist sign of trouble is that Tom does indeed flee the residence as opposed to calmly working a way out of the situation. A ride on the bus proves costly, as his luggage is stolen whilst falling asleep. Getting off at the last stop, Tom’s only hope for refuge is in a dingy Arabic cafe and motel, but without any money left, the owner, Sezer (Samir Guesmi), offers him a job as a night watchmen in one of Paris’ underground passageways. If that is not enough, his situation grows ever more complex when he begins relationships both with Sezer’ current girlfriend, Ania (Joana Kulig) and the mysterious widow Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas).

‘The director has a great knack  for creating tension purely through mood and intricately constructed visuals.’

The set up for Pawel Pawlikowski’s The Woman in the Fifth is exquisitely done. The director has a great knack  for creating tension purely through mood and intricately constructed visuals. Such tools, when in the hands of a capable filmmaker, can be used at a deliberate pace, the intention being to slowly yet assuredly create a sense of quiet discomfort within the viewer. The narrative tactics employed director Pawlikowski to construct said tension is twofold. First, there is Tom’s unfortunate encounter with his ex-wife, an encounter which clearly hints that their previous interactions had ended very, very poorly, although the exact reasons for this remain unexplained. Secondly, the protagonist’s journey is intercut with either out of focus shots of someone dressed in red lying in the woods or beautifully sharp close up shots of insects in said woods. The viewer is simultaneously being led astray and given clues to where Tom is at at this stage in his life and, more importantly, how psychologically distraught he just might be.

The slow, immaculately produced shots are Pawlikowski’s calling card pretty much from start to finish. In essence, Woman is an incredibly artistically driven endeavour. One might argue that it is very European in its aesthetic sensibilities and desire to preserve of unnerving mystery throughout most of its running length. It is the type of film that will unfortunately scare away the thriller junkies, but for anyone with a minimal amount of patience, the experience is very rewarding for the simple reason that the director, who also acted as screenwriter, is quite delicate in his approach to the material, masterfully weaving the appropriate oblique tone to the proceedings. Many scenes are bathed in secrecy, most of which having to do with the uniquely sexual tête à tête between Tom and Margit, the ageing, beautiful and alluring woman who finds Tom fascinating. Tom returns the interest by visiting her frequently, although not all their interactions are what audiences might expect, one such example being when Margit giving the protagonist a bath. Kristin Scott Thomas, by the way, is excellent in the film, playing the role with a strangely awkward sexuality, someone who not only is attracted to Tom but actually wishes to take over his mind, like a witch putting a spell on a poor, lost soul.

‘The film cleverly juggles the character’s (Ethan Hawke) current emotional and mental state with the many misadventures and activities he engages in.’

The character of Tom, played with quiet reserve by Ethan Hawke, is a riddle wrapped in a mystery. Why he should fear the police is never explicitly mentioned, nor is the reason why he does not try to contact any friends or academic colleagues back in the United Sates for help. He simply accepts his fate all the while allowing the angst inside eat him up to the point where things grow out of hand by the final act. The film cleverly juggles the character’s current emotional and mental state with the many misadventures and activities he engages in. His nights spent in the underground surveillance room mirror his loneliness, both as a stranger in a foreign land and by the fact that his family is partially lost to him. The partial angst and tension gestating inside is soothed somewhat by his promiscuous dates with Margit, which satisfy his more immediate urges. While never revealing too much about who he is, the picture nevertheless functions as a moody character study.

Not content to keep things even keeled for the film’s entire duration, Pawlikowski ventures to add infrequent hints that Tom’s mental stability should put put into question, with the revelations that something may definitely be wrong with him increasing in intensity into the final act. Arguing that the final sprint to the finish line is the picture’s undoing would be taking things too far. Despite what flaws begin to rear their heads in the last 20-25 minutes, Woman remains a solid piece of cinema, particularly from a visual standpoint. The script decides to take a route many films similar to this one (with worse casts and cinematography) also embrace, but it Woman fails to do much different with it. It also, oddly enough, has a major plot point transpire within the final minutes of the film, with its resolution occurring barely a few scenes later. What it supposedly adds to the overall story and more specifically to the exploration of Tom’s character is unclear. It is not a tiny little event that could be overlooked either.

Be that as it may, Pawel Pawlikowski’s stylistically compelling thriller time well spent at the cinema. It is very adult oriented, offers some intriguing characters. It seems more concerned with its aesthetics and the buildup rather than a completely satisfying payoff, which may result in those movie goers who simply want well told stories to shun it, but there is nevertheless a lot to admire here.

-Edgar Chaput

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