Pawel Pawlikowski’s most stylised and surreal work to date is a piece of adroit casting, with Ethan Hawke (you may remember his blue, faraway eyes from Before Sunrise and Before Sunset) opposite a typically intelligent performance by Kristin Scott Thomas.
It is also exquisitely shot; languid blurred close-ups of foliage and dreamy, frequently post-coital faces contrasted with stark pans of Parisian banlieue backwaters.
Adapted from a Douglas Kennedy novel, Pawlikowski takes a similarly liberal approach to that of his BAFTA-winning My Summer of Love, diverging enough from the original work to create a wholly independent screenplay. The decision to give the film its own, open-ended and ambiguous direction is what gives it an absorbing degree of conviction.
The plot is based on a lost and broken American writer, Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke), who strands himself in Paris where he desperately attempts to make contact with his estranged daughter and wife. His charmingly poor French accent (much of the film is subtitled, but that doesn’t stop us noticing he pronounces “femme” like “phlegm”) and Clark Kent-esque demeanour established by thick-rimmed Ray Bans and cerebral hunkiness immediately earn him the audience’s sympathy.
Yet our dishevelled and solitary hero’s character begins to twist from endearingly flawed into something potentially more sinister, as he embarks on a breathless, insatiable love affair with a mysterious older woman who lives in the city’s Latin quarter – Kristin Scott Thomas plays Margit Kadar, the woman in the fifth arrondissement. Scott Thomas’ mischievous and razor-sharp performance is gripping, and she is given some superbly self-conscious lines, insisting that as a writer: “you need a disaster to get you started…this could be a real tragedy if you play your cards right.” She is both the comic relief and central to our protagonist’s downfall.
Newcomer to British cinema, Joanna Kulig, puts in a solid performance as the naive Polish waitress who falls for Tom’s writerly ways and sings him Polish verse as they engage in some implied and arty rumpy-pumpy beside a train track. Indeed, despite Tom’s inner-turmoil at being callously torn away from his only daughter, one cannot help but muse that he’s really having a relatively good time getting lucky in Paris.
The Woman in the Fifth’s dedication to the abstract rather removes us from any resolution or emotion we may have felt at its denouement. The author’s only novel, Forest Living, is referenced throughout with paused shots of battered bark on trees and scuttling insects, a motif that unfortunately detaches the audience. This and unanswered questions about the austere, white basement where Tom is hired to work as a look-out slightly take away from the heart of an otherwise engaging story.