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