Pawel Pawlikowski’s bleak 2000 British realist drama Last Resort and his delicately wrought 2004 jewel My Summer Of Love have nothing in common beyond their general excellence, and The Woman In The Fifth, his first misfire, doesn’t offer any further clues about his sensibility. Or clues about much of anything, for that matter. Based on a novel by Douglas Kennedy, the film attempts not just to express the life of the mind—the hardest of tasks for any adaptation—but the mind of a writer, which delves still further into the province of books. In spite of his considerable intelligence and cinematic gifts, Pawlikowski isn’t Roman Polanski, so the delusions and psychosis of his put-upon lead character doesn’t have the right intensity. Fifth feels like a literary bauble, chipped by imperfections.
Compelling mainly because of the way it explored the seedier areas of Paris—the program description aptly likens it to an Eastern European metropolis—the film stars Ethan Hawke as an American novelist who moves to the city in an effort to gain access to his young daughter. When his startled ex-wife calls the cops, Hawke retreats to a bus, gets all of his stuff stolen, and winds up lodging in a crummy hotel above a bar/restaurant run by a dangerous proprietor. By way of rent, his new landlord installs him as the night security guard at a terrible criminal gulag underground. He also embarks on two relationships: One with a Polish waitress (Joanna Kulig), the other with an arch woman (Kristin Scott Thomas) he meets at a writers’ soiree. The latter becomes his muse, but the price of creative inspiration proves substantial.
Pawlikowski wisely reveals the world from Hawke’s point of view, which is the equivalent of installing an unreliable narrator. When his ex-wife cowers in fear the moment he enters the door, the effect is pleasingly destabilizing—he’s both an everyman and a threat. But in spite of the real-life resonances to Hawke’s casting and the ease with which Thomas pulls off the role of cosmopolitan seductress, The Woman In The Fifth doesn’t seem invested in its own psychodrama. Pawlikowski does a fine enough job laying the groundwork for the twists to come, but when they arrive, they merely reinforce the artificiality of most of the relationships. It’s hard to see much of a point.