Pawel Pawlikowski fashions a hallucinatory cinematic nightmare from Douglas Kennedy’s novel “The Woman in the Fifth,” his follow-up to the highly regarded “Last Resort” and “My Summer of Love.” It’s an arresting film but ultimately an unsatisfying one, creating an effectively menacing mood but not delivering much dramatic punch, especially in a disappointing final twist.
Ethan Hawke appears in virtually every scene as Tom Ricks, a bedraggled American academic and novelist who shows up in Paris to reconnect with his estranged wife Nathalie (Delphine Chuillot) and their charming little daughter Chloe (Julie Papillon). Though the details are never spelled out, Nathalie considers Tom, who’s apparently spent some time in jail, a threat, and calls the police when he shows up. He scrambles away, but manages to lose his suitcase while sleeping on a bus and winds up in a seedy bar, where he cadges a dumpy room “on credit” from sleazy owner Sezer (Samir Guesmi), who shortly gives him a job, overseeing a computer console that oversees lowlifes seeking entrance into his mysterious warehouse, in return for the squalid accommodations.
In between clandestine meetings with Chloe, Tom—played by Hawke with dead-eyed despondence—mostly wanders aimlessly and suffers melancholically. He spars verbally with brutish next-door neighbor Omar (Mamadou Minte) over their shared toilet while doing his nighttime duties at the computer. The only bright spot is an affectionate relationship he develops with pretty barmaid Ania (Joanna Kulig), a Polish expatriate who shares her favorite poetry with him and even finds a translation of his sole published book to read. Until, that is, he’s recognized by a bookseller (Geoffrey Carey), who invites him to a soiree where he meets the enigmatic Margot (Kristin Scott Thomas), a worldly widow from Eastern Europe who translated her late husband’s novels and with whom Tom now begins a torrid affair.
Pawlikowski and his regular cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski create an unsettling mood as Tom sinks deeper into unreality through increasingly surrealistic shots of his peregrinations and assignations, punctuated by bizarre flashbacks (or flash-forwards) and intense closeups of unpleasant sights. It all culminates when Omar is found brutally murdered and, suspected of the crime, Ricks names Margit as his alibi. The apparent identification of the real perpetrator is unconvincing, a resolution presented without sufficient explanation, but it’s topped by a revelation about Margit that ends matters on a note that’s supposed to surprise but merely stupefies.
“The Woman in the Fifth” is basically a more pretentious take on the sort of doomed-man potboiler that pulp writers of the forties and fifties turned out with such regularity. But it lacks the visceral fizz that novelists like Jim Thompson so effortlessly provided. In Pawlikowski’s hands the story wanders as desultorily as its hero, and Hawke doesn’t help matters much with a performance that feels more studied than authentic. Nor does Scott Thomas, though elegant, add much more than a generalized air of cool sophistication. And though Kulig provides a welcome breath of normalcy and Guesmi an appropriately nasty tone, neither gets much beyond one-note status.
The writer-director remains a talented fellow, but in this case he’s opted for material that’s not inherently strong, and his treatment doesn’t elevate it.