The Woman in the Fifth: L’amour and la mort in Paris

Ethan Hawke is the troubled writer adrift in Paris, and Kristin Scott Thomas his mysterious muse, in this cool, creepy psychological thriller

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Kristin Scott Thomas and Ethan Hawke in 'The Woman in the Fifth'.

An author of considerable promise — some would say threat — Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke) has written one novel, whose dust-jacket blurb reads: “Ricks has an eye for surreal situations of poetic seriousness.” The Polish-born director Pawel Pawlikowski would like you to look closely enough to detect what’s real and what’s surreal in his new movie, The Woman in the Fifth. Also to see Tom’s situation as serious and and the film as poetic — although this novelist is not the most reliable of narrators. This pensive, seductive drama is full of devious strategies, which begin with its protagonist’s name: T. Ricks. Tricks.

Life seems to be playing dirty tricks on Tom. The American writer has come to Paris, hoping to reconnect with his six-year-old daughter Chloe (Julie Papillon), despite the restraining order his wife Nathalie (Delphine Chuillot) has won to keep him away. She tells Chloe that Tom has been in prison; he says he was recuperating in a hospital. When Delphine phones the police, Tom runs off, hops a bus and falls asleep. Waking up at the end of the line, he finds his suitcase and wallet stolen. Now he’s a fugitive, and broke — how can things get worse? Stay tuned.

(READ: Ethan Hawke on his science-fiction near-classic Gattaca)

At a bar-hotel in a crummy suburban district, he attracts the interest of the pert Polish barmaid Ania (Joanna Kulig), who introduces him to the owner, Sezer (Samir Guesmi). Sezer has a proposition: he will rent a room to Tom, who will pay for his keep by acting as a watchman at one of Sezer’s shady businesses. The job description sounds like an experiment that psychology researchers administer to naive students. Sit for six hours a night in a locked room with a small screen that shows the outside door; if anyone suspicious shows up, press 4-5; if anyone says, “I’ve come here to see Mr. Monde,” press 2-3 to admit the caller. Why are they here? And just who is “suspicious”? It’s not Tom’s place to ask. But he might wonder why he hears banging on his locked door one night, and a man’s voice shouting, “Hey, writer! Come out and you’re dead!”

The proprietor of an English-language bookstore has invited Tom to a literary soirée. The most glamorous presence there is Margit Kadar (Kristin Scott Thomas), international woman of mystery. Half-Hungarian, half-French, she says she was translator and muse to her author husband, now deceased, who wrote about “Love. Loss. Transcendental yearning. Sex.” Showing interest in being Tom’s muse, Margit thinks his bad luck and dark past prove the makings of a poetic spirit. “You needed a good disaster to get you started,” she says, as if uttering a great come-on line. “I believe in you.” When he visits Margit in her fifth-arrondissement flat, and they kiss, Tom shivers, shudders, nearly collapses from the intensity, as if he had just felt the impact of a panic attack, or lovesickness, or the kiss of death. Perhaps writers court catastrophe; maybe mortality is Tom’s true muse.

(READ: Corliss on Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient)

Some games are fatal. Death hangs over this enterprise like crepe: the fear of losing a loved one, the dread of a child in peril. It happens that The Woman in the Fifth is Pawlikowski’s first film since the 2004 My Summer of Love, the stately teen-girl romance that introduced Emily Blunt and Natalie Press to world audiences. His filming of Magnus Mills’ novel The Restraint of Beasts was left uncompleted when Pawlikowski’s wife took ill and he cared for her and their children until her early death.

For his next project, he might have chosen a sunnier theme than a creative artist’s flirtation with grievous loss. Instead, like his countryman Roman Polanski, who filmed a blood-soaked Macbeth a few years after his wife Sharon Tate was slaughtered by the Manson gang, Pawlikowski confronted his awful ache directly — which is why his adaptation of Douglas Kennedy’s psychological thriller plays like a mixture of autobiography and nightmare.

(READ: Corliss on Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer)

Tom could be living both. From the dust jacket we see that his only novel is called Downside Up, yet when asked the title he says, “Forest Light” — and images that assert themselves into the narrative are of a forest, a tree crawling with beetles, a child walking in a glade. Treated to a post-coital bath by Margit, he bursts into confessional mode: “I feel like the real me is somewhere else…and the me that’s here is like a sad double.” Pavlikowski’s fondness for shallow-focus images isolates Tom from those around him: Margit is not two yards behind him, yet she shimmers like a shadow, a memory, a misty ideal.

Even Ania the barmaid, the livelier woman in Tom’s life, dreams of him in danger: “in a field of mud, and sinking deeper and deeper.” Ania, blond and young to Margit’s dark agelessness, is eager to offer unconditional warmth, but Tom warns her, “I’m sick. I destroy everything I touch.” He might be the unbalanced foreigner played by Catherine Deneuve in Polanski’s Repulsion — but aware of (or imagining) his condition — or the more innocent Daniel Radcliffe confronted with a haunted seductress in The Woman in Black.

(READ: Corliss on The Woman in Black)

Scott Thomas, who’s been luring strange young men to their destinies ever since she starred with Prince in the 1986 Under the Cherry Moon, has the grandeur and mystique to lend continental gravity to Margit’s ethereal charms; only she could say, “I was his muse,” with a straight face and persuasively sell it. Hawke, a decade younger than Scott Thomas, has been in movies just as long and, every few years over that quarter-century span, has found challenging roles (Explorers, Dead Poets Society, Alive, Reality Bites, Gattaca, Great Expectations, Hamlet, Training Day, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead). Nicely haggard here, as if every scene were shot when he’d been awake for three days, Hawke uses his familiar persona — the beset underdog — to help viewers sympathize with a character pursued by demons from without or within.

As they watch The Woman in the Fifth, moviegoers may feel like Tom: pulled in vagrant directions, forced to juggle real life (whatever that is in movies) with fantasy or premonition. Indeed, the question of whether Tom is the pawn of the Fates, or their secret agent, is not resolved until the film’s final scene. Accepting Pawlikowski’s mood of poetic seriousness may be a chore for some. Others will find this creepy little sonata a dream or nightmare worth succumbing to, and believing in.