An unsurprising number
IT’S BEEN A rough few years for Pawel Pawlikowski. After exciting all sane cinemagoers with Last Resort and My Summer of Love, the Polish-british director was forced to suspend shooting on his adaptation of Magnus Mills’s Restraint of Beasts when his wife fell fatally ill. Now, seven years after My Summer of Love, he returns with a strange, atmospheric exercise in Kafkaesque unease.
One yearns to celebrate the return of a master. But, though not without its merits, The Woman in the Fifth is ultimately disappointing. Pawlikowski exhibits his familiar touch for imposing a smoky menace on the most unthreatening backdrops. He extracts disciplined performances from his cast. As the film progresses, however, it drifts from intriguing enigma to indulgent hokum.
Based on a novel by the versatile Douglas Kennedy, Thewoman in the Fifth follows a tortured American writer (Ethan Hawke) as he travels to Paris with hopes of meeting his young daughter. Repulsed by his estranged girlfriend – who hints that he has a violent past – he retires to a sordid quarter of the city and takes a room in a crumbling hotel.
The dodgy proprietor offers him a job from a Samuel Beckett play: he must sit in an underground room and unlock the door when visitors, observed on a CC camera, offer the correct password. Where are they going? What are those strange noises? What’s up with the eccentric literary soiree that he attends after work?
While the film is asking questions it works pretty well. When it attempts to answer them it falls to pieces. There’s nothing wrong with Kristin Scott Thomas’s performance, but her appearance as a middle-aged seductress who speaks in riddles nudges the film towards self-parody. One can imagine the script describing the character as a “KST type”. It must now be as easy for Kristin to play an Anglo-gallic riddle as it is for Adam Sandler to play a raving idiot.
Still, the film might have retained flawed-curio status if – thanks to Kennedy, one assumes – it didn’t end with the most familiar, hackneyed “twist” in occult literature. You’re almost certainly way ahead of me.
Go figure: Kristin Scott Thomas as an enigmatic seductress THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH/ LA FEMME DU VÈME Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski. Starring Ethan Hawke, Kristin Scott Thomas, Joanna Kulig, Samir Guesmi