The Woman in the Fifth (2011) ☆☆☆(3/4) : A writer blocked in ambiguous melancholy

small_thewomaninthefifth01 If you appreciate that subtly unsettling mood of “The Woman in the Fifth”, you may forgive the baffling conclusion of its mystery plot. I do not think I understand or discern everything in this puzzling film, but I did not lose interest during my viewing, and its confusing story is well supported by the good performances finely tuned to the quiet but uncomfortable ambience surrounding them.

Ethan Hawke, whose appearance still reminds us of his early years despite being aged, plays an American writer named Tom Ricks. He previously published a novel received well by critics and readers, but both his writing career and his private life are in total mess at present. He comes to Paris for seeing his little daughter Chloé(Julie Papillon), but his divorced wife Nathalie(Delphine Chuillot) does not approve of that for some unexplained reason. When he comes to her apartment, she does not welcome him at all, and she soon calls the police because, according to her, he has been under the restraining order since their divorce.

He manages to encounter his daughter, who gladly welcomes him, but that is just a brief moment. She says to him that her mommy said he was in jail, and he tells her in response that he was in hospital because he was sick. Around that point, you will begin to sense that something is hidden behind Tom’s sincere and desperate behavior. He really wants to spend some time with his daughter, but what really happened in his past? And what do the recurring images of the forest and its ominous creatures in the film mean? Are they connected to his first novel, named “Forest Life”, or his current work in progress?

small_thewomaninthefifth04He can just go back to US, but Tom finds himself stuck in the city. He happens to get his luggage and wallet stolen while he is incidentally asleep in the bus. He fortunately finds a place to stay for a while when he comes into a shabby cafe managed by untrustworthy Sezer(Samir Guesmi), but his room is one of the stuffy rooms above the cafe, and he has to share a common bathroom with an imposing guy occupying the room next to his(and this guy has a very unpleasant habit of using bathroom).

Because he needs money to support himself and pay his lodging charge, Tom gets involved with Sezer’s questionable private business. It looks like a simple deal at first; he works as a sort of security guard at some confined place for 6 hours, and all he has to do is pushing different buttons in different circumstances as instructed by Sezer while occasionally watching the entrance outside through camera. Furthermore, because the place is quiet and isolated during most of his worktime, it looks like an ideal space for him to write something in solitude.

Tom does write something, but it is not his second novel. Still wanting more time with his daughter, he keeps writing the letters meant for her even though the chance to see her properly seems to be getting slimmer. Right after consulting with his lawyer at one point, he screams out of frustration, and he feels more isolated as a foreigner suffocated by alien environment.

Meanwhile, two women approach to him in different directions. Through one meeting full of literary snobs, Tom comes across Margit(Kristin Scott Thomas), who is the wife of some famous Hungarian novelist he has heard about. This beautiful and mysterious woman gives him her calling card, and, being attracted to her beguiling charm, Tom calls her later and visits her house in the Fifth Arrondissement. They quickly become close to each other, but she looks too good to be true, and the piano score in the soundtrack hesitates even when they become more intimated with each other. Thomas’ nuanced performance slyly suggests something is not right about her character, and our suspicion increases more as an unexpected incident happens during the third act of the story.

small_thewomaninthefifth03On the opposite, Tom also engages in an earthlier relationship with Ania(Joanna Kulig), a young polish waitress working at Sezer’s cafe. She genuinely likes him and his novel, and there is a nice scene in which she reads his book translated in Polish to him while they are together in private. If he just wants, she will willingly become his muse although there is some complication in her private life.

The movie is based on Douglas Kennedy’s novel with the same name, and I heard from other critics that the movie is faithful to its source. I have not read the book, but I must say the director/adapter Pawel Pawlikowski does a good job of establishing the mood and then rolling it well along the plot to the ending which may make you scratch your head for many reasons. The movie serves us with one of the most unglamorous presentations of Paris, and it works effectively as the gloomy background for the hero filled with quiet depression.

I must confess that I am still not so sure about what happened in Tom’s past or what really happens in the story, and I think you will be disappointed if you expected a clean-cut mystery plot. There are indeed several loose ends demanding more explanation here and there in the film, but it keeps its melancholic heart intact below its seemingly mundane surface, and its confounding finale somehow feels right with its atmosphere.

Few weeks before watching this movie, I revisited Charlie Kaufman’s great film “Synecdoche, New York”(2008), and I observed that the movie resonates on emotional level despite puzzlement because it looks into the mind of someone sad, desperate, regretful, and fading. While not on the same level of “Synecdoche, New York”, “The Woman in the Fifth” works because of a similar reason; I still do not know much about Tom even in the end, but I think I experienced his melancholic state of mind a lot during my viewing. What a sad, desperate guy he is.

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