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American writer Tom Ricks comes to Paris desperate to put his life together again and win back the love of his estranged wife and daughter. When things don't go according to plan, he ends up in a shady hotel in the suburbs, having to work as a night guard to make ends meet. Then Margit, a beautiful, mysterious stranger walks into his life and things start looking up. Their passionate and intense relationship triggers a string of inexplicable events... as if an obscure power was taking control of his life.Written by
Douglas Kennedy's perplexing novel THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH has been further contorted by writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski for the film of the same name (aka La femme du Vème). If the viewer has read the novel then the confusion of the story will not be as surprising as it is to the novice viewer. In many ways this is a brilliant cinematic exploration of the fragility of the human mind, how events of the past can influence the manner in which we attempt to reconstruct a viable present. But in other ways this is a film that refuses to tell a story that is logical and will leave many viewers with some serious head scratching by movie's end.
Academic professor of literature and writer Tom Hicks (Ethan Hawke) seems to be fleeing America in the wake of a scandal simply because he wants to see his six-year-old daughter Chloé (Julie Papillon): Tom's estranged wife Nathalie (Delphine Chuillot) refuses to let Tom see his daughter, has a restraining order in place and seems fearful of Tom's character (it is suggested that Tom may have been in prison for the past six years). The police are called and Tom escapes onto a bus, falls asleep and s awakened at the end of the line having been robbed of this luggage and money. He is in the sleazy part of Paris inhabited by North Africans and Moroccans and finds a degree of solace in a tiny café, the beautiful Polish waitress Ania (Joanna Kulig) offers him coffee and introduces him to the owner, Sezer (Samir Guesmi) who allows him to room in the filthy place, an offer that is accompanied by a 'job' where he will be a night watchman in a warehouse visited by shadowy figures who must give a code for Tom to allow entry. Tom uses his night jobsite to write lengthy letters to Chloé and spends his days spying on her at her school. At a bookstore he meets a fellow American who invites him to an evening reception for writers and there he encounters the very strange Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas), a bewitching but enigmatic widow of a Hungarian writer who is obviously attracted to Tom and sets meeting times and places for them to engage in a tryst (in the Fifth Arrondissement). Tom and Margit begin a tempestuous physical affair but at the same time Tom and Ania have an equally passionate affair and there is always in the background Tom's obsession to reunite with his daughter. But the story implodes with a murder, a disappearance, and a very strange change in the veracity of Margit's existence. It is at this point that the film becomes purposefully deranged and bizarre and the audience is left with merely some ideas and clues as to what has really happened. How are these incongruous events to make sense? Can they make sense? Is Tom succumbing to the same fever that kept him sheltered for many days upon his arrival in beautiful Paris? Has time somehow passed him by or is he living in an even grander deceit than he first thought?
The film is basically in French with English subtitles. Ethan Hawke struggle with the French but that is credible for a 'just arrived' American. Kristin Scott Thomas offers her usual excellent skills as the strange Margit and the remainder of the cast do well with what little dialogue they are given. The dank atmospheric cinematography is by Ryszard Lenczewski and the correctly strange musical score (from an aria form a Handel opera sung by a countertenor to piano music excerpts form the Romantic era) is the work of Max de Wardener. Pawel Pawlikowski's moody, menacing, downbeat film takes something from the director's Polish compatriots Polanski and Kieslowski. It is offbeat but for those who appreciate experimental cinema this is well worth your time.
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