Set in modern day Paris, The Woman in the Fifth is a murky and unsettling story about a mentally ill man who finds sanctuary when he meets a mysterious woman.
The Franco-British drama leaves many ends untied, forcing the audience to reach their own conclusions. The undeveloped plots make it quite confusing, to say the least. Directed by BAFTA winning Pawel Pawlikowski (Last Resort, My Summer of Love) The Woman in the Fifth is an adaptation of Douglas Kennedy’s novel of the same name.
Ethan Hawke (Daybreakers) is Tom Ricks, an American professor who arrives in Paris in search of his estranged wife Nathalie (Delphine Chuillot) and his young daughter. When he attempts to have a ‘normal conversation’ with Nathalie, she simply replies “you’re not normal”. It gradually becomes clear that something is not quite right with the man. Luckily for him, he soon meets Margit, a mysterious and seductive woman, played by Kristen Scott, who soothes his anxieties and makes him feel loved.
From the very beginning, you cannot help but suspect Tom; there’s something strange about him. Despite his conventional appearance – a fondness for tweed jackets and thick rimmed glasses – he is always on edge and runs every time he sees the police. Hawke’s edgy portrayal of this strange, oddball character, makes it very hard for us to figure out his true personality, which is both intriguing and frustrating. As the whole story is told through the eyes of Tom, it is difficult to tell what is reality and what is fantasy. Hawke’s performance peaks during a scene when he is taken to a police station for questioning; the pain in his eyes is utterly convincing. Surprisingly, I felt great sympathy for Tom, despite his untrustworthy persona.
However, it is Kristin Scott Thomas as Margit, the woman in the fifth arrondissement herself, who really stands out. Thomas portrays Margit’s charismatic and bewitching charm so effectively, that both Tom and indeed the audience, initially trust her. Mysterious, seductive and craving a man, she seems trustworthy to begin with, but as we only see her through Tom’s eyes, she remains a character who we cannot put our finger on just yet. Magrit weaves a web of seduction and sanctuary for Tom who becomes hooked on their meetings.
The Woman in the Fifth refuses lead the viewer by the nose to a happy ending, it is highly unpredictable if nothing else. We are left to fill in very many blanks. This approach has been used successfully a lot in films recently, but here the mysterious and enigmatic plot never reaches a satisfying conclusion. What makes it even more frustrating, is that even the concluding scenes are seen from Tom’s perspective, making it impossible for us to find out the truth behind his strange character.
The Woman in the Fifth is released in cinemas on the 17th February 2012 by Artificial Eye.