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Review: ‘The Woman in the Fifth’ Is Equal Parts Mystery, Menace and Madness, But to What End?

By  · Published on June 15th, 2012

Books and films are two very different mediums capable of eliciting the same reactions of joy, disappointment and every emotion in between. Both are essential, but they each have at least one distinctly related advantage over the other. Books rely on descriptions to create their world, but it’s ultimately up to the reader to envision what that world and its inhabitants look like. On the flip side of that, movies allow storytellers to show viewers exactly what they want them to see while still leaving open the option of interpretation.

Tom (Ethan Hawke) is an American writer/college lecturer who arrives in Paris anxious to see his wife and young daughter after an extended absence. It’s only when he arrives at their residence that we begin to suspect this may not be a traditionally happy reunion. His wife is clearly upset to find him on her doorstep, and after he politely barges in to see their daughter the woman phones the police to report that he’s breaking a restraining order issued due to past violent behavior. Tom runs from the police only to have his suitcase and wallet stolen while asleep on a bus.

Devoid of baggage and identity he struggles to retain his family, security and sanity in the face of an uncertain menace that threatens to bring him past his breaking point. What exactly that menace is, and how far Tom will go to combat it aren’t always clear, but neither is much else in The Woman in the Fifth. It’s a film that repeatedly obfuscates Tom’s reality with imagery, subplots and tangents that ultimately serve as little more than distractions along the way. Or do they?

Tom convinces a sketchy bar owner named Sezer to rent him a room with the promise of future payment, and he also accepts a job from the man buzzing unknown people through a mysterious door. He’s told not to worry about who they are or where they’re going… just buzz them through if they ask a particular question, and press a different button if they don’t. A young barmaid, who may or may not be Sezer’s girlfriend, strikes up a relationship of sorts with him as well which given Sezer’s questionable business practices really can’t be a good idea.

His most affecting new relationship though comes when an ex-pat bookstore owner recognizes Tom from the author photo on his singular novel and invites him to a small party. He meets Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas), a confident seductress who was once married to a Hungarian writer and served as his muse. She swiftly and subtly becomes the same for Tom, but is she fostering his creativity and his writing or his madness?

Our suspicions of Tom’s past behaviors lend some of his present interactions an uneasy and unspoken violence. A threatening neighbor, a driver who almost hits him crossing the street, his own wife… his clenched fists and underlying rage at situations tease the possibility of conflict. Depending on your interpretation of subsequent events these various side characters and story lines may or may not be relevant to the story and the outcome.

Writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski’s film is based on a novel by Douglas Kennedy which by all accounts lays out the events in Tom’s life in a far more concrete manner. What’s presented directly on the page is only teased and hinted at on screen, but is one method automatically better than the other? The trick lay with describing or showing enough for viewers to work with while avoiding spoon-feeding them every detail, answer and explanation. Reveal too much and you’ve done all the heavy lifting for the audience. Reveal too little and they’re left scratching their heads.

The Woman in the Fifth will leave you very itchy indeed.

The Upside: Beautifully shot; engaging and fast-moving story; Ethan Hawke is convincing as a homeless bookworm hiding the potential for violence

The Downside: Too many threads that seemingly amount to nothing more than distraction; endings open to interpretation are fine, but there’s such a thing as being too wide open

On the Side: Ethan Hawke has a higher percentage of “writer” characters on his resume than most other actors. Except for maybe Paul Dano.

The Woman in the Fifth opens in limited release on June 15th

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.