Though it sounds like a cheap legal thriller, The Woman in the Fifth is anything but — director Pawel Pawlikowski’s slow-burn psychological horror tale is less cat-and-mouse than it is lost and forlorn. Though it doesn’t quite succeed in plumbing the depths of its modern gothic trappings, those looking for something other than the usual whodunnit will either be unsettlingly surprised or disappointed at what’s hinted at, but never fully materializes, onscreen.
Ethan Hawke plays Tom, a gaunt-faced English professor who comes to Paris, France after an extended stay in a mental hospital (or so it’s assumed) to reclaim his daughter. After his estranged wife threatens to call the police, he grabs a bus and takes off, where he’s promptly robbed and stranded. He lands a free room at a grubby hotel in the Parisian suburbs, stupidly handing over his passport as collateral.
He spends his days spying on his family, writing film script-like letters to his daughter, fooling around with the chesty Polish woman who works the hotel bar, and milling about with French literati. When the shady owner of the hotel realizes Tom is broke, he offers him a seemingly easy gig as a security guard. Tom soon settles into his new role, where he sits at a desk watching a camera all day, buzzing people into a locked room for reasons unknown.
While out one evening, he stumbles into Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas), the widow of a forgotten Hungarian writer. She gives him her number, and promptly, uh, bathes him the next time they meet. (Ah, the French.) She becomes an evil confessor of sorts, slowly erasing his past life with bitter musings on parenthood and love. He cries before and after they have sex. What a pussy.
As he further becomes lost in Paris, living on the margins as a poor expat, his fragile sanity starts to crumble. His daughter remains beyond his grasp. There are ghosts lurking in the margins. Eventually, the mysteries converge — Margit, the locked room, disappearing bloodstains, a gruesome murder — and the real reason for Tom’s Parisian sojourn is revealed.
It’s left to the cast to reveal the snaky plot twists, and they do a serviceable job — Hawke still hasn’t shed his lackadaisical, slacker mode of “acting,” while Thomas isn’t given a lot to do with her small role. As much to blame is the brevity of the flick, which at a scant 84 minutes (given the content) gives neither actor enough time to build much of a character.
Pawlikowski lets the Parisian setting guide the film, adding a little ominous piano here and there to further drive home the cold ennui of his existentialist tale. The medieval tone, added by grey skies and crumbling cement and brick, recalls other similarly themed thrillers, like The Vanishing and The Talented Mr. Ripley (the film feels a lot like Patricia Highsmith’s Euro-oriented novels). Unlike those tales, however, Woman is pretty damn depressing throughout, only pausing occasionally for an odd comic aside involving Tom’s neighbour at the hotel and his foul bathroom habits.
Woman in the Fifth is much stranger than its standard thriller plot would suggest. The third act is pretty spooky — part trashy ’80s psychological scare flick, part dour art film. It’s schizophrenic, eerie and doesn’t quite work. As idiosyncratic as it is, Woman doesn’t have the nerve to follow its horrors to their outer extremes, pulling back from the abyss to settle on something much sadder than viewers will expect, and than the film deserves.