Down And Out In Paris

Kristen Scott Thomas - an enigma variation in The Woman In The Fifth.

Title:                      The Woman In The Fifth

Certificate:              15

Director:                  Pawel Pawlikowski

Major players:          Ethan Hawke, Kirsten Scott Thomas

Out of five?              3

Fans of Pawel Pawlikowski will no doubt be delighted by his return to moviemaking.  The Woman In The Fifth is his first film since 2004, when he made the BAFTA winning My Summer Of Love.  Others less familiar with his work may have more mixed feelings. I’m among the latter.

Arriving in Paris in the hope of seeing his daughter, failed writer Tom (Ethan Hawke) ends up in a seedy rooming house after all his possessions are stolen.  Working during the night as a security guard for his landlord, he embarks on an intense affair with the glamorous Magrit (Kirsten Scott Thomas in enigmatic mode).  But the murder of the man in the room next to his sets off a chain of events that intensifies his unhappiness and makes him question the world around him.

That actually makes the film sound quite straightforward and, initially, it takes an  interesting course, posing a number of questions.  What was so bad about the separation between Tom and his wife that she is clearly scared to death of him?  He doesn’t seem the violent type, but she indicates otherwise.  Why doesn’t Magrit talk or even make eye contact with anybody else at the party where she meets Tom?  And what is his very iffy landlord up to in the underground rooms, where Tom admits visitors uttering the magic words “I’ve come to see Monsieur Monde”?  Horrible screams penetrate the walls and there is blood on the corridor floor, so it’s more than a little dodgy.

We never get any answers.  Pawlikowski skilfully leads us on a not-so-merry dance – Tom is clearly depressed from the outset and spirals downwards as the film goes on – taking us in various directions, but they all prove to be dead ends and the audience is left to draw its own conclusions about what they see on the screen.  Are we watching a dream? Or is Tom having a nervous breakdown?  You choose.

Visually, it’s an arresting film. The story is set in a very seedy, down at heel Paris, with the especially grotty rooming house set above the ironically named café Au Bon Coin.  Bon is certainly is not.  And in his well-cut clothes and Ray Ban specs, Tom sticks out like a sore thumb among a sinister underclass and grubby surroundings, all of which the director creates effectively.

A visual metaphor involving Tom often seeing places and people severely out of focus, despite his glasses, runs throughout the film.  The audience is seeing the story through his eyes, but if his vision is so bad, perhaps he’s not a reliable narrator either.  Again, we don’t know for sure, but the fact that nearly all the women in his life – Magrit, his daughter and his Polish girlfriend – all regularly remove his glasses for him means it can’t be just an empty gesture.

Ultimately, the film is so enigmatic that it becomes frustrating.  I enjoy a film that makes me think, but it rather helps if I have at least some idea of what it’s trying to say to me in the first place.  The Woman In The Fifth is an attractive, almost beguiling, jigsaw of a movie.  It’s just that some of the pieces are permanently missing.

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