Ethan Hawke Goes Crazy in Paris

06/13/2012 4:00 AM |

The Woman in the Fifth
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

There are moments in The Woman in the Fifth, the latest feature by My Summer of Love director Pawel Pawlikowski, that feel like homage to Roman Polanski. The two Polish extracts—Pawlikowski has been living in England for many years—share a keen sense of the uncanny and a knack for communicating psychological terror. In Pawlikowski’s claustrophobic new film, the carefully woven fabric of reality seems to be on the point of tearing at any moment, recalling Polanski’s Repulsion. It is a pity then that Pawlikowski abandons his quietly haunting impressionism in the film’s more literal second half.

The Woman in the Fifth stars Ethan Hawke as Tom, an American expatriate who arrives in Paris to care for his daughter. The connection between the elfin child and Tom, an unsettled professor and novelist to whom Hawke lends his scruffy looks and generation-X angst, is undeniable. It provides for some touching moments, including Tom’s letters, in which he imagines a virgin forest where father and daughter may be reunited. But if Tom’s imagination is ostensibly fueled by love, it is also populated by darker shadows. From the start, there are worrisome signs in this coming-home fable: Tom’s wife has a restraining order against him. Explaining her need for protection she alludes to his stay in a mental institution. And so the psychological puzzle begins: We can never be sure to what extent Tom is aware of his violent humors. His character is one of contradictions, between a mopey one-hit-wonder, and a haunted, potentially dangerous, or at the very least fractured mind. We watch him lose his footing in reality one halting step at a time.

It doesn’t take long before peculiar coincidences pile up. Tom, robbed on a bus of all his possessions (rather conveniently), ends up living in not-so-bohemian squalor, and working as a night watchman for a shady Middle Eastern hotel proprietor. There are strange going-ons on the job, and unwelcome tensions at the hotel—between Tom and his loud, unhygienic next-door neighbor, but also Tom and the hotel owner. By the time a gruesome murder is committed, Pawlikowski’s crafty, at times laborious meshing of outer and inner worlds will have completely eradicated our ability to name the real perpetrator, with any certainty.

Accompanying Tom’s unraveling are two hapless amours: one with a very real Eastern European waitress, played to perfection by Joanna Kulig as a poetry-struck ingénue seducing Tom with a tome of Norwid, deep cleavage and Polish lullabies; and another, quite imaginary, played by Kristin Scott Thomas. Unfortunately, Thomas’s prodigious talents are underutilized, perhaps because, unlike Tom who is a maze of conflicting impulses, her character, Margit, is not a person but a paper-thin figment of the imagination: a femme fatale with a tragic story, who offers herself as a muse but indulges Tom in suicidal fantasies. To Margit are assigned some of the most strained scenes—her bathing the boyish-looking Hawke in a bathtub, or snuggling in his arms as she professes her complete faith in his genius, would be ludicrous, where it not for Thomas’s seamless fusion of motherly and predatory instincts.

Ultimately, the film’s central handicap lies in personifying and so externalizing Tom’s torments. Making Margit a symbolic figure stretches the story’s logical and psychological believability. The intricate balance is thrown off by too many arduous embraces; in the scenes with Margit they are really a heavily allegorized flirtation with madness. And if Tom is our doomed man—he makes a Faustian gambit, escaping his destiny but only by paying the highest price—the path he takes to the grand finale feels too portentous.

Opens June 15