Filmed in French, English and Polish, Pawel Pawlikowski’s The Woman In The Fifth offers a uniquely European look at love, literature and lunacy.
The Space Between by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Paris’ Fifth arrondissement is the home to the Latin Quarter, the Sorbonne and the Pantheon, and as such, provides the perfect cultural background for an intellectual and slightly louche femme fatale. Of course, Kristin Scott Thomas has it in spades, bringing not only her easy French but also the moral ambiguity of Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long but also the reckless infidelity of Catherine Corsini’s Partir. And Ethan Hawke is perfectly, albeit conventionally, cast as the quintessential American writer thrown up on the shores of the Seine, with more echoes of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset than a hollow cave. He’s tormented with mental illness, something approaching writer’s block and with an irrepressible desire to sleep with the women who fall at his feet.
Caught between Margit, a rich, beautiful, erudite, otherworldly Romanian translator living on the Left Bank, and Ania, the young, blonde Polish wife of his criminal boss and hotel owner Sezer, Tom is a man in a crisis and his charming boyishness and his intellectual air attract him to both; just like the neighbourhoods in which they move – the delights of the ancient, medieval Fifth, and the gritty multicultural reality of Canal de L’Ourcq. Ania reads to him in Polish, inspires him like a Muse, cares for him and makes love to him on the rooftop of their Parisian dive, while vampish Margit intrigues him, even frightens him. And more than anything, The Woman In The Fifth is a film about spaces; Margit loves him for the penniless, washed-up writer that he is, while with Ania he has the space to be a successful author receiving literary prizes, happily married and accompanying his daughter to piano lessons, the life he dreams of.
The double life he craves is nowhere close to the life he leads. Returning to Paris from his life in the States as a university lecturer and one-book writer, he longs to be a husband and a father again, but with a history of violence, his wife calls the police and he takes off. He watches his daughter from a distance, in parks and from behind iron fences. Marginalised by his family, he quickly finds himself on the borders of society too, when he’s robbed of all his belongings and penniless. But he ends up working as a surveillance guard in a no-questions-asked underworld business to pay back his hotel debts and where he can write, for hours on end, a literary missive to his daughter.
The space though that haunts The Woman In The Fifth the most is the space of art and the imagination. It’s present in the camerawork from the very beginning, where Ryszard Lenczewski‘s beautiful cinematography slowly reveals Tom’s daughter Chloé in a misty forest, or blurs the green shimmers of a park in summer into a kaleidoscopic delight. A godly space of beautiful creation. it’s also an imaginative space he conjures up when he writes, or visits with his muse, walking along its abandoned curving railway tracks. But most chillingly, it’s also a realm haunted by spiders, owls, craneflies and beetles; a hellish underworld to which Margit’s restless soul can banish Chloé, a waiting room for death from which only Tom’s self-sacrifice can free her, exchanging his daughter’s life for his own, and shaking off this mortal coil indefinitely with a fatal fade to white when he visits Margit in her abandoned apartment.
Mentally ill and with a propensity to violence, the threads of truth in The Woman In The Fifth are almost impossible to knit together. The story is seen through Tom’s unreliable eyes, and we’ll never know if he murdered his hotel neighbour Sissoko, or whether his interest in Margit was imagined, or the safe return of his daughter mere coincidence. Like the fantasy space he imagined with his daughter that led to his first book Forest Life, Tom’s way of seeing the world is one he shares with his daughter. It’s a worrying thought, but it’s a passion for creativity that leads to both artistic inspiration and disturbing delusion.
In its tale of a powerful, dangerous love, The Woman In The Fifth recalls Pawlikowski’s previous film My Summer Of Love, with its otherworldly romanticism and giddy emotion. Kristin Scott Thomas is underused, but as the angry, angsty French-speaking gauche intellectual, Ethan Hawke performs admirably. To type. The casting is perhaps a little obvious and Pawlikowski’s story a little abstract, but he seems to be aiming for something greater. With Lenczewski’s magisterial camerawork floating up banisters and hugging out-of-focus walls, Pawlikowski is shooting for a transcendentalism worthy of Bresson, Kieslowski or Ozu. He may not quite hit the mark, fostering perhaps bafflement rather than ecstasy. But it’s a bold move all the same, and with his fusion of the extraordinary and the everyday, it’s a beautiful dip in an unforgettable space.
The Woman In The Fifth is released in the UK on 17th February 2012