An un­sur­pris­ing num­ber

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Filmreviews -

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

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