Review: The Woman in the Fifth


We talked a bit about the allure of ambiguity during yesterday’s interview with Ethan Hawke, which is fitting for The Woman in the Fifth. It’s propelled by a foreboding mood, and the interest comes from watching Hawke’s character experience a sort of mental degeneration/spiritual death march. (Also fitting: if I’m not mistaken, “the ambiguities” was 19th century slang for mental illness.)

Nothing is quite spelled out, not everything gets answered, but you can follow its trail of listlessness and depression. You may not necessarily know exactly what happens, but you do feel you know what happens. It’s a movie about falling, in a way. Tom Ricks just falls and falls into different kinds of pits.

It’s compelling if you’re into movies that trace moods, but only up to a point. Like the old joke goes, the fall isn’t so bad, it’s the landing you should be worried about.

The Woman in the Fifth (La femme du Vème)
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Rating: R
Country: France/Poland/UK
Release Date: June 15, 2012

One way to play with ambiguity in a movie is to sustain a certain tone that people can follow. It’s the emotional or intellectual tether you can hold on to when the narrative itself is slippery. I haven’t read the novel by Douglas Kennedy that The Woman in the Fifth is based on, but if it’s as ambiguous as the movie can be, I imagine the language is something that helps keep readers hooked. There are maybe recurring phrases or ideas that are sustained, like little knots in a long, winding line of despair.

In this case, we have the world of the film filtered through the point of view of Tom Ricks (Hawke). He’s a one-hit-wonder writer whose only novel was short-listed for the Pulitzer before he fizzled out. He goes to Paris to try to reconnect with his estranged wife and young daughter but is immediately chased off, only to be stranded in a dead-end cafe/hotel without his luggage. He’s hit rock bottom, but then the floor gives way. Hawke portrays this depression with a lot of authenticity, part of it likely drawn from his own dark years at the Chelsea Hotel.

This is where the tonal knots begin to appear: confinement, imprisonment, cages. Everything that Tom does seems to emphasize his sense of isolation and alienation. It’s clear that he’s not well, emotionally distraught, and that he’s unable to see the world properly–another knot right there from the beginning, the idea of things being in focus or out of focus. Since he has no money to pay for his bed at the hotel, he’s given a job in which he’s asked to sit in a dingy room and allow people access into a building. No questions asked, none answered. Something’s definitely not right.

And then there’s the mysterious stranger, Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas). She drifts through a literary party where everyone ignores Tom (or perhaps he’s ignoring them). She’s the only person he seems to connect with. There’s the inevitable seduction, made more seductive by the weird teasing involved. Thomas has that way about her performance that can be devastating–the sexy book editor, the sensual chair of the literature department, the well-read vamp smoking outdoors. This union spurs Tom to write long, regretful letters to his daughter with the same sort of devotion you’d expect people to put into a novel.

There’s a sense of mystery to the movie as it progresses, but it’s less “Who done it?” and more “What’s going on here?” Nothing about the movie needs to be resolved, at least I don’t think so, but these knots of mood and tone need something to provide a sense of completion. I mentioned to Hawke in the interview that the movie sort of reminded me of Barton Fink by way of Last Year at Marienbad. It’s an odd wander through the life of the depressed mind. Every decision Tom makes opens up a new hallway towards a dead end.

Thinking of Marienbad and the novels of that film’s screenwriter, Alain Robbe-Grillet, the ambiguities in all his works create this network of ideas and associations. Even though you don’t get answers, there’s a kind of intellectually satisfying end even if it is unresolved. It sounds like a cop out sometimes–“That’s the point, it’s supposed to be ambiguous”–but it’s less about the end itself and more about what’s gained when you gather up and review all those knots along the way.

That’s sometimes easier in literature. That circulation of ideas and images and language can be pretty hypnotic, and if book closes on the right string of sentences, it can feel complete even if it’s unresolved. The film Last Year at Marienbad achieves that feeling but it’s because it takes the network of meaning and then makes a push a bit further, not toward answers but toward an intangible kind of satisfaction. (Is that ambiguous enough?) It’s the type of ending that makes you go, “Huh,” and sends you out into the night to talk about the movie with a friend who’s similarly tuned in to movies like Marienbad.

The film version of The Woman in the Fifth apparently departs from the source material, so I sort of wonder how Kennedy’s novel ends. Maybe it does it better than the film adaptation. For all its circling and wandering, the film ends almost predictably. It’s not as hokey as something like Secret Window, but when it comes, it’s expected; or at least it seems obvious once you think back. It’s disappointing since the performances are solid and Pawel Pawlikowski has such a precision when it comes to evoking a mood or a feeling. If only they’d follow that mood a bit further so it’s less tidy.

That’s where the additional thematic leap comes in. It keeps the story afloat–a song that ends with a studio fade out at the right moment. The movie would feel like it’s always falling but never hitting the ground. Or, maybe, if it hits the ground, the floor gives way again. The way it is now: Tom makes his meandering journey, makes a decision, and the film fades to a dead end; for a while it feels like flying, and then–thud.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.