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The Woman in the Fifth (2011)

WARNING: SPOILERS

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.

Pause.

That’s right. He’s handsome.

You 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:

1,000 EUROS TOMORROW OR YOU’RE DEAD.

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.

Comments

—June 23, 2012

© 2012 Erik Lundegaard