erik lundegaard

Movie Review: The Woman in the Fifth (2011)


There’s a moment in “The Woman in the Fifth” when the title character, Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas), having just given a handjob to down-on-his-luck novelist Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke), leads him into another room in her high-ceilinged luxury apartment in the fifth arrondissement of Paris. The next shot is a close-up of an incredibly handsome man, with bare shoulders and hair slicked back, and, for a second, I wondered if Margit had led Tom into some kind of orgy with an Italian model. Then it dawned on me: Oh, that’s Tom. That’s Ethan Hawke. She’s bathing him.


That’s right. He’s handsome.

affiche: La femme du VemeYou forget watching “The Woman in the Fifth” (“La femme du Vème”). His character is so skittish and drawn, peering at the world through crooked, smudged glasses, and wearing the same musty clothes (hence the bath), that you forget the guy’s a movie star. Women in the movie are forever removing those glasses. With reason. They’re too askew, and the lenses enlarge his unstable eyes too much. They’re the glasses equivalent of Jack Nicholson’s bandaged nose in “Chinatown.” They’re so unflattering you can’t imagine a movie star wearing them.

An actor, on the other hand...

When did I begin to hate Ethan Hawke with the white hot hatred I usually reserve for members of the New York Yankees? Was it “Reality Bites”? The offhand way he explains the meaning of ‘irony’ to poor Winona Ryder? Was it the fact that he published a novel, “The Hottest State,” in 1996, at a time when I was trying and failing to get short stories published? Was it the privileged, pretentious way he moved through that privileged, pretentious decade? And when did I begin to let go of this unnatural hatred? “Training Day” helped. “Before Sunrise”/“Before Sunset” were OK but he played pretentious in the first and novelist in the second. So it must’ve been his loser brother in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” He stole the film from Philip Seymour Hoffman. I watched for Philip, despite Ethan, and Ethan blew me away.

He does it here, too. He’s a novelist again, with one published book, but you wouldn’t know it looking at him. He seems stunted. Every move he makes is tentative and uncertain. At times he tries to act confident, as before a lawyer, but his bluster augments the uncertainty in his face. It’s hollow and painful and followed by bursts of unrepentant anger. It’s no surprise when we find out he was recently in a mental institution.

As the movie opens, we see him bluffing his way through immigration, bluffing his way into a Parisian apartment building, and when a woman, Nathalie (Delphine Chuillot), tries to shut the door in his face, he pushes his way in. He speaks a passable French but talks to her in English (“Can’t we talk like normal people”) and she responds in clipped French (“Tu n’est pas normal”). Turns out she’s his ex-wife, but he’s less interested in her than in seeing his six-year-old daughter, Chloe (Julie Papillon), and, voila, runs into her as he’s leaving the building. She’s glad to see him; she’s not scared the way Nathalie was. He’s happy she wears glasses like his. Later, he’ll tell her, “You see the world like I do.” Even then, that doesn’t seem like a good thing.

He’s still on the run, though. Nathalie’s called the cops, so he leaves Chloe and tugs his luggage down the street. After falling asleep on a bus, his luggage and wallet are stolen. When he complains, the bus driver tells him, “Go to the police.” The very thing he can’t do.

In this manner he winds up in a rundown Arab cafe/hotel at “Au bon coin” (the Good Corner), which has a pretty Polish waitress, Ania (Joanna Kulig), and where he has to give up his passport to the owner, M. Sezer (Samir Guesmi), to get a small, dingy, second-floor room with a loud, angry neighbor, Omar (Mamadou Minte), who doesn’t flush their shared toilet. At the same time, some luck: Sezer, who may or may not be a petty gangster, gives him a job, €50 a night, to monitor a videocamera in a dingy, locked room, and let in anyone who asks for “M. Monde.” Then at une librairie anglaise, he’s recognized for his first novel, “Forest Life,” and invited to a swanky literary party, where he runs into Margit (Scott Thomas), whom we know to be our titular character, a potential femme fatale, with whom he talks on a balcony overlooking the base of the Eiffel Tower. She’s direct and gives him her card. When he shows up at her place, with a few scraggly flowers in his fist, we get the handjob scene mentioned in the opening graph.

So what’s her game? What’s his? He’s trying to see his daughter, as a father rather than as a stranger on the wrong side of the playground fence. In the meantime he writes her a long letter complete with drawings of woodland creatures, as in the enchanted forest of his first novel, which Ania finds in a Polish translation and reads. She’s impressed and he winds up sleeping with her, too. Unfortunately, Ania is Sezer’s girl, and Omar attempts to blackmail him. He leaves a note:


Margit, for her part, remains supremely confident in Tom. She tells him his next novel will be great since he has all this material: Sezer, down-and-out in Paris, her. He confides in her about Omar’s threat but she dismisses it:

Tom: You have no idea what these people are capable of.
Margit: You have no idea what you are capable of.

Then things move fast. Upon returning to au bon coin, he can’t open the second-floor WC. It’s blocked. Yes, by Omar, who sits on the toilet, dead, with a plunger down his throat. The cops come and question Tom about his arguments with Omar; they show him the blackmail note with his fingerprints on it. One wonders: Did Sezer set him up? To get back at him for Ania? Tom winds up in a solitary jail cell. Can he sink any lower?

He can. Margit is his alibi, and he tells the cops where she lives. But she doesn’t live there. She’s not even alive. She’s been dead since 1991.

But suddenly he’s released. The police have a new suspect, Sezer, who, when he sees Tom, reacts angrily, claiming Tom set him up.

Throughout the movie, intercut with the action, we’re shown dreamy images of a forest, like the one from Tom’s novel, with a girl in a colorful dress, blurry and just out of view, leaning against a tree. Is she dead? At one point we wonder if it’s Ania in her flower print dress. But when Chloe goes missing, we know it’s her. Not dead, though. We see her wandering back into the city, and the police pick her up and reunite her with her distraught mother. Tom, meanwhile, is reunited with Margit, who represents madness or death. At the end of the movie, he shows up at her door again, sees a flash of white hot light, and gives into it completely.

“The Woman in the Fifth,” the work of Polish writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski, is a smart, atmospheric, noirish thriller that clocks in, like a true 1940s noir, in under 90 minutes. I went in not expecting much. It has a 5.1 IMDb rating, so I assumed pretentious; I assumed it would fall apart. It doesn’t. I was hooked from the beginning. I’m still hooked.

We see the world through Tom’s eyes, like his daughter, and once we know that Margit doesn’t exist we try to figure out who does. Omar? Sezer? Ania? He could be imagining the whole thing from an asylum in England. It would explain why he often winds up in cells: the small chambre, the video room, the jail. It would explain why Paris is mostly empty side-streets.

Indeed, some post-coital conversations suggest that the entire movie is in his head:

Ania: It’s not good for you here.
Tom: There is no ‘here.’

With Margit:

Tom: I feel like the real me is somewhere else ... and the one that’s here is like a sad double.

At the same time, this last line is eminently relatable. Most of us have felt this way. How did I wind up here? Wasn’t I due for better things? Yet here I am. We don’t have to be in mental institutions to feel this way; we just have to be human.

Me, I want Omar, Sezer and Ania to be real. I think the movie’s better this way. So, yes, Tom is in Paris. Yes, he kills Omar but doesn’t remember it. Yes, he kidnaps his daughter. That’s why he returns to Margit. He gives in to the white hot light of death/madness to protect his daughter from himself.

That’s why he does what he does with the letter, too. That’s why it’s poignant. He’s been writing it throughout the movie. It’s long. But in the end he doesn’t trust it, or himself, enough. So to protect her, to make sure she doesn’t see the world through his eyes, he throws the letter in a trash bin. Then he returns to retrieve one page, which he tears in half. That’s the one he mails. It contains two words: Love, Dad.

Tags: , , , ,
Posted at 07:39 AM on Mon. Jun 25, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2011  


JHS wrote:

This is the first time I've seen your blog and discovered it after reading probably two dozen reviews of this film, only one or two to any satisfaction at all. Yours is the most thoughtful and I appreciate your insights into this somewhat complicated film. I agree with you on your analysis that once we (the viewer) find out that Margit is dead, we could assume then that none of the other characters exist either and it is all a dream he's having in the asylum. But like you, I believe the others exist and he is in Paris and what happens to the other characters is as you describe. One detail that is curious to me is that the police detective says Margit murdered the man who ran over her husband and child with a knife which she then used on herself when the cops came to arrest her - Omar was also murdered with a knife and when the detectives arrest Sezer determining it was his knife that killed Omar, Sezer screams as he passes Tom that it was his knife. We know Tom has a history of violence from the beginning of the film where his wife tells the audience this background so he's capable of the crime but it did make wonder if there was any tie-in with Margit since she also used a knife. Did her spirit he sees foresee his doing this which is why she thought they belonged together either in the madness or eternity they elude to the end? Did she will him or give him the idea to do it? One reviewer wrote to him he thought Margit was perhaps a projection of Tom's better self - but how could a murderer be a wished for better side of oneself? This doesn't make sense. Tom believes she kidnapped Chloe and demands to know what she did with her and where she is - he's clearly talking to some other projection of himself here which is Margit since he took his daughter and knows where she is to lead the police there. The final shot is either his giving his life over to insanity or death - I don't know which but his ex-wife was clearly correct he was incapable of having any normal life or existence and something to stay away from however talented at one time.

Comment posted on Sun. Jan 20, 2013 at 06:26 PM

Mark Williams wrote:

I love both interpretations read above, but there is one missing thin thread... The photo of Margit's little girl, killed by the car with her husband. Margit is unreal, not real sex, self-love of a hand job. He is a pedophile, kept away from his daughter for what he might have her do...

The images blur; they run together, in and out of each other.

Why then, the job as a watcher, plus the image of an owl, suspiciously looking like a mask with a man's eyes behind? Why then the question: “What are they doing in there?” There is perpetual danger, perpetual longing, perpetual questioning...

The final image of his blonde Polish lover is of her at her window, missing him in his chair, missing him in her life. She, of course, is real, with him when the Police arrive, finding out in the end the secret within his time apart, his unexplained hours, his pedophilia... She shuts her eyes, no tear comes...

She too was seen in a photograph, as a little girl with her sister, the thinnest of common threads. So young, she looks...

With the light in the door shining on his face, he gives in and closes his eyes, choosing never again to see who he is or what he has done.

He was never to come out of his watch job room. One day he does, and sees a trail of blood, leading into... the bathroom. His alter ego is smart, and hard. Now there would be no rival for his girlfriend, framed for the murder of his foul neighbor. She, another child, would forever be free...

Comment posted on Mon. Apr 29, 2013 at 06:33 PM

Chris Keough wrote:

Thank you for your blog.

Just a short comment.

I loved the film, however, without going into great depth re each scene, although this would be worthwhile and would tease out my suggested meaning to a greater degree, the movie spoke to me about agency in respect to the artist. Does the artist control his/her art, or does the art control the artist? What will an artist forgo for his/her art? Do they get to choose, or are they held in ransom for their art? Are they truly free to establish and maintain the terms of their relationship with others? Consider the great artists, visual, musical, and try to relate them into this film's narrative.
Just a thought.
Sydney, Australia

Comment posted on Sun. Aug 17, 2014 at 04:14 AM

Chris Keough wrote:

BTW, she was real.
She was his art.

Comment posted on Sun. Aug 17, 2014 at 01:13 PM
« Hollywood B.O.: Brave New World for Pixar   |   Home   |   Song of the Day: 'Civil War' by Joe Henry »
 RSS    Facebook

Twitter: @ErikLundegaard