Thursday 17 May 2012

The Woman in the Fifth (2011)

Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Stars: Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
I'm primarily at the Phoenix Film Festival nowadays for its sadly merged in International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival component, which is the festival where everything began for my better half and I back in 2007. Yet this year I saw more films than ever from the Phoenix Film Festival proper, partly because so many of them were really horror and sci-fi films and partly because they just looked so appealing. Top of my must see list was Dominik Moll's The Monk, a modern French adaptation of Matthew Lewis's 1796 gothic cause celebre with dream casting of Vincent Cassel as Ambrosio and Geraldine Chaplin as the Abbess. Unfortunately it didn't happen. The editors were still at work, or some such, so it didn't make it over in time and I got to see the substitute instead: a cryptic French, Polish and British co-production of an American novel. It's so quintessentially European art house in its execution that I'm still trying to figure it all out.

Beyond the French title of La femme du Vème being a neat rhyme, it hints at the international flavour of the piece. It refers to the fifth arondissement of Paris and a woman by the name of Margit, who calls herself a mongrel: a half Romanian, half French lady who boarded in England and married a Hungarian. In keeping with this flavour, she's played by a British actor who lives in France, is fluent in the language and mostly appears in French movies nowadays: Kristin Scott Thomas. We don't meet her for a while though, instead following the real lead around first. I'm not sure why Ethan Hawke is fluent in French, but he does well with it. He speaks it with a very American accent, appropriate given that he plays an American, Tom Ricks by name, who has an estranged French wife, Nathalie. He's in Paris to see her, even though she has an exclusion order against him, and especially their young daughter, Chloé, who was told he was in prison.

Whether he was or not is the beginning of the mystery, though it doesn't seem so at the time. It merely suggests that while Ricks is our protagonist, he may not be our hero. Certainly he runs from the sirens when Nathalie calls the cops. Unfortunately he falls asleep on the bus and wakes up to find that he's been robbed, left only with his passport. He doesn't go to the bank to cancel his stolen cards, he finds a café and barters a room with the obviously shady Sezer. By this point we've realised that he's cultured and capable and he can think on his feet. However, we wonder why he makes the decisions he does and we can't help but read his words to Nathalie and Chloé as both caring and sinister. He feels somehow both adrift and shifty. Whoever and whatever he really is, he's fascinating and we're drawn into his character. We wonder about his motivations and where his new world at Sezer's café will lead him.
As you might expect from European art house cinema, it leads him into intrigue. Sezer gives him a job, one that fits his calling as a writer. Really he's a university professor but he'd published a novel and is writing another one. Sezer takes him to an underground room and tasks him with locking himself in daily for a six hour night shift. All he has to do is mind the screen in front of him, press a button once in a while to open a door if someone arrives and maybe dial a number if they look suspicious. Naturally, 50 euros a night to do nothing in solitude is a dream job for a writer. I'd take it if I didn't have bills to pay. It's around here that he meets Margit, floating about at a literary party to which he's been invited by a local bookseller who recognises his face. In keeping with his potential dark side, he doesn't just introduce himself, he follows her around and watches her for a while first. Soon, of course, they fall into a passionate affair.

It's hardly your standard passionate affair though. She's utterly in control of their relationship, in every way: practically, emotionally and sexually. She mandates the times he can see her: always at her apartment, never before four. He brings her flowers but she makes all the moves. In her hands, he's not just putty, he's inexperienced putty. He fumbles like he's never done any of this before, ex-wife and child notwithstanding. Margit obviously becomes a muse for him, as she did her dead husband, but she becomes an obsession too and a pathway to somewhere ephemeral. And then, out of the blue, as we ponder what all this really means, we discover that none of it is real. Omar, the black guy in the room next to Tom's, shows up dead, in a fashion that points at Tom Ricks in no uncertain manner. He raises Margit to the cops as his alibi, only to find out that she committed suicide fifteen years earlier. Now we really have a story.

What we don't have is an answer. When the film finishes, we don't know what is real and what isn't. Reading it straight is unsatisfying. While Margit is apparently a construct of Tom's mind, she isn't a complete construct as she did exist as a real person who lived at the apartment he visited her at, merely long before he ever came to Paris. Where he might have heard about her to build this subconscious fantasy isn't addressed. Why he would do so isn't addressed. Whether he was really in prison before the story begins, as Nathalie told Chloé, is never confirmed. Maybe he was in a mental institution. Maybe he still is. Maybe everything we see takes place inside his head and we never make it to Paris at all. Certainly we don't see the usual Paris, the tourist spots and the landmarks. We see immigrants in cafés off cobbled streets. Oh, and we see mysterious underground rooms where he has to lock himself in. Is it really that blatant a metaphor?

The thing is that I don't buy that everything we see is in Tom's head. Maybe the beginning is real but everything after he falls asleep on the bus is his dream, prompted by a tense situation and a reception he didn't expect. There are brief bookends to the film that open up the possibility that, while we watch the film from Tom's perspective, maybe the whole thing really takes place within Chloé's head as she attempts to come to terms with a missing father. We visit occasional dream sequences that feature Tom and Chloé together in a forest, but they could be Chloé's dreams as much as they could be Tom's. Yet the story visits places that we wouldn't expect a young girl to visit, even in her subconscious. Maybe the real focus is Ania, the young Polish waitress at Sezer's café, who really belongs to Sezer but falls for Tom anyway. She seems to influence Tom as much as Margit, though in completely different ways. Is this all a cleverly constructed escape for her?
Who knows? I certainly don't. I have no problems with cryptic stories told in unorthodox ways. I rather enjoy the challenge that they bring, especially in a cinema where mundane is merely a route to more ticket sales. Yet what I also enjoy is a solid resolution before the credits, whether I've been astute enough to foresee it or whether the filmmakers goose me with a grand reveal. That resolution doesn't have to be black and white, it can be cleverly and ambiguously wrapped up in shades of grey so that the credits and the drive home can be accompanied by dissection and interpretation. What I don't particularly relish are movies that are so thoroughly ambiguous that it's hard to even figure out where to begin a discussion of what they all mean. This is one of those and it runs the viewer down the road of inadequacy and futility that begins with 'maybe I just don't get it' and ends with 'if nobody else does either, maybe there's nothing to get'.

What we can get are quantifiable details. It certainly looks great, the cinematography by Ryszard Lenczewski a notable and elegant success. He has a strong filmography, mostly in his native Poland but he may now be based in England where he's won a couple of BAFTAs. Writer and director Pawel Pawlikowski is also Polish, though he's less prolific than his cinematographer. My Summer of Love in 2004 was Pawlikowski's previous film as both writer and director, while Lenczewski shot six other films in between. The acting is excellent, Kristin Scott Thomas almost as dominant as an actor as Margit is as a character. Ethan Hawke acquits himself well, in English and French, and the supporting cast are consistent. I was especially impressed by experienced French actor Samir Guesmi, who I last saw in a supporting slot in Luc Besson's District B13, and Polish born Joanna Kulig, who plays the enigmatic waitress and possible driving force, Ania.

With all those positive aspects though and with precious few negative ones, what we're left with is the story, which is intriguing and magnetic but ultimately frustrating and disappointing. I don't know if the fault is with Douglas Kennedy's source novel, as it isn't listed among his best work, or with Pawel Pawlikowski's adaptation. There's always that underlying suspicion that it's with me, as a viewer who doesn't have the insight to figure it out, but I don't think so. Usually I can tell if that's the case and reserve my opinions for a second viewing that tends to clear the matter up. Here I don't believe a repeat visit would help. It all felt very familiar to begin with, as if I'd seen this story before, perhaps phrased as a short film, but I can't track it down. Maybe it just tapped enough into the general European art house feel to become part of something bigger than itself. If so, it doesn't distinguish itself above its peers and will fade into being merely another enigma.


Anonymous said...

Best review of this movie after reading through nearly twenty reputable sites!

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Thanks! I'm very happy to be your first disreputable one... : )