REVIEW: Sacrebleu! What the Hell Happens at the End of The Woman in the Fifth?

Movieline Score: 6

Watching a thriller requires a certain willingness to be a dupe. The whole idea is to give yourself over, and the ideal is to find yourself moving from scene to scene – as if you were cautiously exploring the rooms of a very mysterious house -- asking, “And then what?” In the Paris-underworld thriller The Woman in the Fifth, director Pawel Pawlikowski is skillful enough to keep you wondering, from scene to scene, exactly what that what is going to be, and I was with the movie every step of the way, right until the final credits began rolling – at which point I realized that the whole thing made no sense whatsoever, and that none of my nagging questions about what the hell was going on would ever be answered. There’s a distinction to be made between being a dupe and being had.

I know, I know, I’m being way too literal – The Woman in the Fifth is one of those movies of the “It was only a dream!” variety, designed to tickle our imagination as we ponder the distinction between what’s real and what’s only illusion. Some “It was only a dream!” movies work beautifully -- The Wizard of Oz is one of them; Femme Fatale is another. But The Woman in the Fifth leaves a tantalizing trail of breadcrumbs only to lead us to…one last breadcrumb. I enjoyed watching Kristin Scott Thomas shimmer through the picture as a sultry viper woman, and I felt a kind of embarrassed tenderness for Ethan Hawke as his character tried to express himself in stubby blurts of bad French. But by the end, I only wished I had some stinky cheese rinds to throw at them.

That may be less their fault than Pawlikowski’s. (Pawlikowski adapted the screenplay from Douglas Kennedy’s novel of the same name, which I have not read, though now I’m extremely curious – I need to read it to find out if it has an actual ending.) Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke) is an American college professor who, as the movie opens, shows up in Paris to reconnect with his estranged wife (Delphine Chuillot) and the couple’s young daughter (Julie Papillon). The wife is none too happy to see him – she not only bars him from seeing his child, but calls the police on him. He runs off, boards a bus, falls asleep and awakens at the last stop -- in a crap neighborhood, naturally – only to find that his bags have been stolen, though luckily he still has his passport. He makes his way to a shabby café where a tired-looking but beautiful Polish blonde named Ania (Joanna Kulig) waits on him cautiously. Ricks needs a room – is there one available? Ania waves him over to her bass, the café’s owner, the super-shady-looking Sezer (Samir Guesmi), who agrees to give him lodging but insists on keeping his passport as a formality. In his desperation, Ricks obliges without even a blink.

That’s one of those deliciously ill-advised decisions that only fictional characters are allowed to make, and you can’t help wondering what it’s going to set in motion. During the course of the movie, Sezer gives Ricks a job, Ricks is forced to share a bathroom with a big black guy who won’t flush the toilet, and a mysterious femme fatale insinuates her way into Ricks’ life. That would be Thomas’s Margit, a mesmerizing creature who works as a translator. The two meet at a half-pretentious, half-pathetic literary party, and she slips him her card, urging him to call her. “Anytime after four,” she purrs.

Up to this point, and really pretty much up to the end, The Woman in the Fifth is beautifully noirish. Shot by Ryszard Lenczewski – in Paris, no less! – the picture has a dull glow that’s both elegant and ominous. The performances are suitably low-key and intriguing: Hawkes’ Ricks is a walking pile of trouble, a man whose anguish virtually sweats through his pores. Hawkes is a shambling actor, often so understated that it looks as if he’s doing nothing, or as if he were simply on his way somewhere else and got caught up in a detour – I’ve always liked that about him. As for Thomas, I don’t believe there’s any beautiful actress working who looks more like a lizard – and I mean that as a compliment. Those heavy-lidded eyes, that patrician sculpted jawline: In The Woman in the Fifth, she looks as if she should be perpetually sunning herself on a rock, if only it wouldn’t wreak havoc on her aristocratic milky pallor.

I loved watching The Woman in the Fifth. But the ending is both so oblique and so murderously obvious that I felt I’d been had. Where the devil were those stinky cheese rinds, which I know I should carry with me at all times? Pawlikowski – director of the 2004 My Summer of Love, which featured a then not-so-well-known Emily Blunt – guides us artfully through the picture, keeping us asking all sorts of questions, only to leave us at the wrong bus stop. With no luggage. Did I really just spend 90 minutes watching this thing, pretty much enraptured for most of the time? No! It was only a dream! If only.


  • Michael Dance says:

    Great review and one I agree with completely. I rented this the other night...and it somehow managed to end up as much less than the sum of its parts. I was reluctantly disappointed.

  • steve dick says:

    I'm inclined to think he's lost his mind

  • Steph C says:

    I have lost my mind after watching this

  • Fran says:

    Ack! This movie was so frustrating. Great review. Was any of it real? Or was Tom just having a fantasy from some loony bin in Connecticut? This was one movie about crazy people being crazy that could have used an extra dose of reality.

  • vicky says:

    I jus dont get it - what happened - help its reallygoing to bug me - what are the implications even - I don't eve get that!!!!

  • Arystar says:

    I think its implied that Tom is mentally ill since the beginning. In the end I think he goes on to kill himself.

  • Rob Wallace says:

    Margarit is surely a ghost who traps him into coming across to 'the other side' to free him from the charges of murder and kidnap. In the book he returns to the apartment in the Fifth outside the specified time frame and finds it derelict and she is dead. Only after five can he visit and find fun and pleasure at the cost of losing not only his loved ones but also the beautiful Polish 'muse'. The trouble is squeezing a long book into a shortish film.

  • joan says:

    I agree with the above comments...the movie ends without any explanation...was Maragarit the only dream figure? It is a movie you want to understand but there are no explanations ...just leaves
    you wondering how much was real and how much was the delusion of a man with mental illness.

  • Courtney says:

    I agree with Arystar. I assumed he killed himself as well, because he was mentally ill and couldn't seem to escape his demons. Rather than leave his daughter the rambling letter he'd been writing he sent her the only bit that really mattered in his abscence, his love.

  • ChampLuck says:

    Margarit is not a ghost. When she died in 1991, she was younger that time. But when she met Tom, she was way too older. This open-ended story cracks minds of movie watchers. Im trying my best not to be judgemental but, come on, lets admit it, this film is very disappointing. If this is what the director or the producer or the writer wants us to perceive, well, congrats! Good job for annoying us especially me.

    • Saloni says:

      My interpretation: Margrit is death calling him, but I'm not sure how he conjured her, maybe he read about her and what happened to her once, a long time ago. And in these types of stories, it's quite usual for sex and death (eros and thanatos to get all litcrit) to be connected. Death literally seduces him. And yeah, that is too murderously obvious as the reviewer says. At the same time though, I don't believe he murdered the non-flusher or kidnapped his daughter. Unless that's what he's really doing during the scenes he's making love to Margrit. That's a tantalizing possibility, but I think in those scenes with Margrit he's really just exploring his desire to for death. In the end, I don't think he loses his mind because he has the self-awareness to say that he destroys whatever he touches. Rather than living and causing pain to his daughter, he chooses to die.

  • Disappointed says:

    Just watched the movie on TV. After one hour I was still waiting for something to happen. At the end I still had no idea what the heck it was all about. Symbolism is not my thing. Guess I'm too literal. I wanted to throw something at the screen. Wasted two hours.

  • A. M. Hobson says:

    Just finished my second viewing of TWIF--unintended. The first viewing was earlier this summer and I immediately reported the experience to my non-Parisian European friend. She and her husband (who is also non-Parisian European) watched the film and thoroughly enjoyed it. Hubby's take was that Rick committed suicide. I felt he entered physically entered into Margit's parallel universe. Surprisingly, my friend did not offer an opinion--btw, Paris is one of her all time favorite cities.

    All that being said, I fully appreciated Saloni's take on TWIF. Rick's activities could quite plausibly be attributed to insanity. Ms. Margit being the personification of death fulfilled both a physical and emotional need. Their exchange was akin to the rite of a last supper. All in all I would say the movie was brilliantly done. After all it has us sharing our thoughts . . .

    • Miles says:

      I am late as I just saw the film this week. My take is that Rick really wanted to be back in his daughters' life but his imagination drove him more than the actual life he was living. I think Rick hated the idea of going to a party with a bunch a people he did not know, so he imagined Margit was there, desired him, could help him get his career on track and guide through his circumstances. The rapper/non-toliet flusher kept pushing him towards rage, while his ex-wife & the daycare worker pushed him towards rage and "Sezer" was pushing him towards rage. The only thing making him feel better about himself was Margit in his imagination (I think he knew what she did and how she died, hence she was the "perfect" woman) and Ania who ACTUALLY appreciated his writing, desired him and was in real. But once the rapper/non-toiliet flusher went to blackmail, she wife kept him away from his daughter and he realized "Sezer" was a bad boyfriend & up to something evil he snapped. He murdered the Rapper, set-up "Sezer" and snatched his daughter with the purpose of killing her (if I cannot be with her, no one will). He then thought he could just be with Ania and get back to normal, but once he realized killing his daughter was even more evil than anything "Sezer" was up to, he went back into his imagination, released his daughter and choosed to live within his mental illness, which was defined by "Margit".

  • CF Walker says:

    Thank GOODNESS it wasn't just me. I quite like the psych thriller genre, and I'm used to feeling disturbed/uneasy after a particularly good one, but I'm not normally IRRITATED, and I was by this film. I'm afraid I may have uttered the charming phrase "WTF???" several times during the viewing. The comments I read here comfort me - oh, good, I'm NOT the only one, there are OTHER literate people that had the same reaction 😉 That said, I agree with AM Hobson - clearly the movie wasn't a total waste of my time. If the point of art is to provoke emotional response, this one did it. After all, I DIDN'T turn it off, I was still thinking about it the next morning, and I was motivated enough to google it to find out what the hell HAPPENED in that film! (When the title of this blog showed up in the search, I laughed - my thoughts EXACTLY).

  • TheWomanOnTheComputer says:

    [SPOILERS] I was gripped by it, but thought it failed to either -leave you with juicy questions OR -satisfy with closure, and it needed to do one or the other. I thought the light in the flat was him realising that the awful acts were perpetrated by him. Hence the letter, the only true thing he could say to his daughter "Love, Dad" how sad.

  • Ken says:

    It is not necessary to decipher a chronological narrative. It is what it is; the wishes, dreams and desires of a man disintegrating.

  • Carade says:

    What the hell are all you people chatting about? "Imagination, what was real and blah blah blah." I would have to really struggle to come up with anything that said we shouldn't take the events at face value.


    Idiot apparently moves to Paris to see his wife and daughter. He is... not on good terms with his wife. He has no plan and breaks the law by doing this.

    Gets robbed.

    Because he's an idiot he gets trapped doing some menial work for the shadiest guy he can find in five minutes.

    Starts banging some older lady.

    Thinks that he isn't the real him and that the real him is a successful writer and has a happy family and can bowl 300. Which isn't a sign of a psychotic break. If he said stuff like that at that all-pathetic, all-pretentious literary party he would've fit right in. He's just some idiot loser.

    Starts banging some younger lady as well (ok, maybe you do have a point it's all in his head).

    Annoying Neighbour is killed.

    As the prime suspect the cops chat to him. They tell him his alibi can't be true because *gasp* the older lady was dead the whole time! Shock!

    Ghost older lady is smitten with him - for some reason - and blackmails him into staying with her (whatever that means, after life, little pocket dimension in the flat, whatever).



    That's it. There's nothing to 'get.' Trying to look deeper into stuff like "he was in an insane asylum in Minnesota! None of it was real!" is just... silly. You could make those arguments, sure. But you could probably do the same thing with Disney's Beauty and the Beast. A lot more easily, actually. It was all chugging along fine until it got all Sixth Sense. That killed it for me, and I cannot stress enough how much that isn't meant to be a pun.

  • Kathy Graci says:

    What? I just watched this film &I had to skip back 3 times at the end? It just leaves you hanging. I thought I had it together but that ending was so strange. I just didn't get it.

  • R. J. Zinda says:

    It seems that everybody that has left a comment here has completely passed over the part where they show the Polish girl has possession of the letter that he tore off from his rambling script that he tossed away. I cannot say if any of the events actually happened or not once I saw the Polish girl had the letter. She's shown placing it in an envelope and then Ricks is walking to the mailbox to send it off. All the while the Polish girl is watching him. She's not crying or trying to make any contact, just looking. This makes me believe that it was all delusional, the Polish Girl was another fictitious character, maybe represented himself when he was younger, the old lady was how he felt as an adult at that moment. The fact that the old lady was to blame for all his problems and also was the one who was telling him that he could succeed if he tried is the part that makes no sense unless that older woman was his representation of himself at that moment. Knowing that his fate was to be the same as hers, death by suicide after revenge. That meant saying good bye to the Polish Girl (himself at a better time) killing the Older woman or staying with her (either way you perceive it to be) it's the same thing, and saying good bye to his Daughter the only one that mattered to him. I missed few beginning minutes and was unable to determine what may have sent him to the crazy house originally, if there was any reference even made I'm sure that would have tied it all together. The revenge would be made on whatever the cause was of his downfall, if that was ever displayed or mentioned.
    I could be way off on this but I think that the director was hoping the viewers would catch the letter being in the Polish Girls hands and should have been enough to make everyone realize that these characters were all parts of his mental illness, all those people were him or imagined by him. How did the Hotel stay open after the guy who ran it was jailed? None of it happened as portrayed, we are seeing the story from Ricks's point of view, he could have still been in a Mental Hospital. There's no way of knowing.

  • Flora says:

    Since the Margit character committed suicide, I assumed that the Ethan Hawke character was invited by Margit to do the same. She did, after all, invite him to be with her indefinitely, to me that means, in the afterlife, as ghosts.

  • Heidi says:

    I agree with Flora. He realizes he is mentally ill and begins to question his sanity...what is real and what is imagined. Margit tells him if he walks away from his wife, daughter and his muse Ania and stays with her forever the three will remain safe, but only if he leaves them and joins her forever. We already know she committed suicide. The deal she is offering mandates he do the same. In an effort to protect the ones he loves he commits suicide and joins her. The final scene is Tom at her apartment to join her in death.

  • Heidi says:

    I actually read this after I posted. This guy's review nails it:

    A Polish director and an enigmatic movie - no surprise there then! What does surprise me is the relatively low rating that viewers have awarded, presumably because they didn't understand or attempt to understand the symbolisms. Any movie that makes you sit and think - even if your initial reaction is unfavourable - deserves a higher mark especially when you consider the unimaginative dross continually being served up by Hollywood.Ethan Hawke is very good as the confused and dishevelled writer coming to terms with life in Paris after being institutionalised and becoming estranged from his family. What had he done? With hindsight it is possible to interpret the events that follow as chapters in his mind that happen immediately after his incarceration. He is in fact never released. His wife's hostility and the loss of his luggage - a pretty obvious metaphor - represent the breaking of ties with his former life. The shabby hotel, hostile neighbour and a daily routine of watching people entering a secure area are all symbolic of life in a mental institution which he observes while attempting to write letters to his daughter that she will never receive. His daughter found wandering in a park alludes to his initial breakdown. Kristin Scott Thomas, as alluring as ever, plays one of his two sexual fantasies conjured up from his literary past. Exotic, desirable and willing she seduces him into leaving his miserable life and joining her forever: an undoubted euphemism for suicide. At least the blinding white light that followed was unmistakable. Well that's my take. You may have a different explanation altogether but it surely emphasises my initial assertion that any film that can make you think is a good film no matter what the subject matter.

  • Billy jabotte says:

    I think he was living the dream and it's all in his head.I did like the journey but the end is like bitting into a good looking grape just to find out it's rotten

  • Jolly Roger says:

    I'm still unclear on the whole story but a few things popped out to me but my husband overlooked them.
    First...R. J. Zinda stated that the Polish girl had possession of the piece of torn paper from Tom's letter. In actual fact the Polish girl was shown to have nothing in her hand and the close up was of Tom's hand caressing the words "love Dad" before he puts it in the envelope addressed to Chloe. Then he places it in the mail box. But on closer look the second time I watched the movie the director purposely shows a close up of the long "letter". Further inspection reveals the owl sketches he drew but what can be seen of the verbiage refers to King Henry V and knights and a history lesson on the subject. It didn't look like a letter to a 6 year old nor a child's story about an owl.

    Further, I found it interesting that Tom stares at the photos that the Polish girl has beside her bed. The photo she says was her at six years old in a dress her mother made and her little sister. She also speaks about the photo of her (at about the same age) with, as she says, "was" her father.

    I think there was more clues with the young polish girl than has been commented on.

    One last observation: maybe it just me and I'm not putting down the acting of a young child. However the acting of little Chloe was very odd. From the first sighting this child was squinting with new glasses, walked very awkwardly all the time and just seemed to be deshevled as much as Dad Tom was.

    Maybe the whole story about Tom seeing daughter Chloe was over looked because the story was about what really happened to Chloe. Why was Dad incarcerated previously and when Chloe went missing why was Tom so quick to stay to his ex-wife, "it wasn't me. I promise." Food for thought. I'd enjoy comments.