The Woman in the Fifth: Toronto Review

Lush puzzler about a frustrated novelist benefits from old-fashioned art-film approach.

Pawel Pawlikowski's art film stars Ethan Hawke as a troubled American who has fled to Paris in the wake of a scandal that cost him his job.

A haunted-novelist art film sporting a lusciousness that's as unfashionable as it is pleasurable, director Pawel Pawlikowski's The Woman in the Fifth takes a path viewers may not expect but is hypnotic enough to succeed in arthouses starved for the combination of sensuality and the romanticization of literature.

American novelist Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke) comes to Paris hoping to reunite with his six-year-old daughter, taken there by an estranged wife who's deeply unnerved by his arrival. After an unspecified breakdown that left him hospitalized, she took out a restraining order and told the girl her father was dead.

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After having his luggage and wallet stolen, Tom finds lodging in a sketchy inn and gets a night-watchman job entailing an almost allegorical combination of tedium and menace. Two women enter his life: a Polish blonde at the inn, who reads and loves his single novel, and a striking widow named Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas), who gives him her card at a party and invites him to come visit. (Margit lives in the Fifth Arrondissement, hence the title.)

Tom is working on an epic letter to his daughter and stalking her on the city's playgrounds, but the film (based on a novel by Douglas Kennedy) suggests he has another, subconscious mission. Margit, for one, believes she knows what he needs: Offering herself to him sexually immediately after they meet, she quickly slides into the role of supportive muse. As she bathes and clothes him, making calmly adoring assertions like "You have a voice. I believe in you," her red-hued room is a fantasy refuge for a writer who has given up on his career. All the while, though, Tom is prone to frustrated outbursts that suggest old problems will bubble up before he can achieve anything with this visit.

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As small mysteries and threats of violence become a part of Tom's daily landscape and his mental state seems more precarious, the tale takes on a Paul Auster flavor suggesting a puzzle that may never quite be solved. Max de Wardener's score conjures meditative states, and the picture's tone doesn't bend toward repressed frenzy, as it might in a more contemporary film of this sort. Hawke offers more restraint than usual, and it works well for the film; by the time we (and Tom) begin to understand what is happening, we may be as seduced as he is.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (ATO Pictures)
Production Companies: Haut et Court/Film4, SPI Poland
Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Ethan Hawke, Joanna Kulig, Samir Guesmi
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Screenwriters: Pawel Pawlikowski, Douglas Kennedy
Producers: Caroline Benjo, Carole Scotta
Executive producers: Carole Scotta, Caroline Benjo, Simon Arnal, Barbara Letellier
Director of photography: Ryszard Lenczewski
Production designer: Benoit Barouh
Music: Max de Wardener
Editor: David Charap
Rated R, 83 minutes