It’s been seven long years since Pawel Pawlikowski made his enigmatic My Summer of Love, with his follow up held back by personal tragedy. So, it’s with a certain mixture of excitement and trepidation that his delayed fourth feature The Woman In The Fifth arrives on screens and although filled with plenty of interesting moments, it’s unfortunately a bit of a disappointment. The bizarre (and possibly even supernaturally flavored) film lays the paranoid groundwork for emotionally wrought thriller before all the tension and mystery dissipates when stumbling towards a confused conclusion. What works is strong enough to suggest the whole thing is little more than a misstep in a promising filmmaker’s career, but in some ways that makes the experience all the more frustrating because it comes tantalizingly close to being an effective mystery before losing the thread.
Ethan Hawke stars as one of those struggling novelist types who arrives in Paris in an attempt to reconcile with his ex-wife and daughter despite a restraining order that puts a bit of a damper on the whole thing. He’s dismissed by the wife, gets robbed on the bus, and ends up talking his way into getting a room in a sleazy café with owners who could only be described as reputable by the cast of a 70s Scorsese picture. At that point we can’t help but identify with Hawke as a wandering victim with suggestions of past success that slipped away through dumb luck. Yet, there’s something in his eyes signifying he’s not completely honest with himself or anyone else. His wife clearly fears him in a way that’s more than a little disconcerting and there are whispers of a violent past that seem one bad day away from becoming the present. Hawke starts working as an automated door operator for some sort of narcotics den in the evening for his board and hooks up with both the cute waitress in the café and a vaguely mysterious widow (Kristin Scott Thomas, doing vaguely mysterious as only she can). All the while Hawke seems to be pursuing reconciliation with his family, though not that intently. Then people start dying and while it’s unclear who is responsible, Hawke keeps getting blamed and it becomes increasingly difficult to view him as a lost sympathetic hero.
If The Woman in the Fifth can be compared to anything it would be a vintage Roman Polanski thriller. This isn’t a thriller based as much in suspense as paranoia, where no one seems trustworthy and answers are always just out of grasp. Unfortunately Pawlikowski isn’t quite as strong a genre filmmaker as his Polish directing grandpappy (well, not in this movie anyways). His film lacks Polanski’s typical narrative drive and try as he might Pawlikowski isn’t nearly as good at forcing the audience into the perspective of his protagonist. Like Repulsion or The Tenant, this is a movie shot through the POV of an unreliable mentally ill character and gradually the audience is meant to clue into the fact that much of what they’ve seem is either hallucination or fantasy. Pawlikowski is able to create the uneasy tone early on while laying down some intriguingly mysterious groundwork, but as the movie stumbles towards the finish line the reality/delusion line never becomes comfortably clear. He is still one hell of a visual storyteller, creating a beautiful yet jittery and somewhat ominous vision of Paris and nurses some fine performances out of his actors. It’s certainly one of Hawke’s most interesting recent efforts even if his role never gets an appropriate payoff.
As frustrating of a viewing experience as The Woman in the Fifth can be, it’s at least a movie that will stick in your mind with all its unsolved mysteries (though sadly Robert Stack is not involved). Like all of the director’s work, the film as a hypnotically elusive quality that’s easy to admire and get lost in. He’s clearly a filmmaker with considerable talent and even a lesser outing like this works better than any hack job on a good day. Like Ethan Hawke’s unfortunate grasp of French in the lead role, the movie is at least a noble failure. It might not entirely work, but the intent is admirable and the early scenes have a certain elusive spark. Ah well, at least Pawlikowski will probably deliver on the next one. He’s clearly rusty after a few tumultuous years away from the director’s chair, but he certainly hasn’t lost it entirely.