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With: Ethan Hawke, Kristin Scott Thomas, Joanna Kulig, Samir Guesmi, Delphine Chuillot, Julie Papillon, Geoffrey Carey, Mamadou Minte, Mohamed Aroussi, Jean-Louis Cassarino, Judith Burnett, Marcela Iacub, Wilfred Benaïche, Pierre Marcoux, Rosine Favey
Written by: Pawel Pawlikowski, based on a novel by Douglas Kennedy
Directed by: Pawel Pawlikowski
MPAA Rating: R for some sexual content, language and violent images
Language: English, French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 84
Date: 09/11/2011

The Woman in the Fifth (2012)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Bad Café

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski returns to the screen for the first time since My Summer of Love eight years ago. To put a little perspective on it, My Summer of Love contained the breakout performance of actress Emily Blunt, who has since gone on to appear in at least 14 movies during that same time.

Personally, I have been looking forward to more Pawlikowski films since I reviewed his Last Resort back in 2001. The Woman in the Fifth is not what I would have expected, but maybe that's a good thing.

Based on a book by Douglas Kennedy, The Woman in the Fifth begins with some of Pawlikowski's realist elements, including his method of developing characters as he goes, in pieces, rather than in neatly compacted scenes.

A disheveled, desperate Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke) arrives in Paris to try to reconcile with his wife (Delphine Chuillot) and see his young daughter (Julie Papillon) again. The wife won't have anything to do with him. (His crime, which was outlined in the book, is left largely silent here.)

Falling asleep on a bus, his bag and money are stolen, leaving him alone and broke. He wanders into the nearest café and talks its owner, Sezer (Samir Guesmi), into letting him stay in one of its overhead rooms. We learn that Tom has published a novel and he gives an indication that he now plans to start writing a second. Sezer gives him a strange and vaguely sinister job, watching a monitor and buzzing in people that give the correct password. Meanwhile, he begins sleeping with the café's pretty waitress, Ania (Joanna Kulig).

But the real plot kicks in about halfway through when Tom reluctantly attends a writer's party and meets Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas), the wife and muse of an obscure Hungarian writer. She all but invites Tom to be her lover, and it's not long before he takes her up on this. He begins to see her frequently, but then... the other shoe drops.

It wouldn't be fair to explain or interpret what happens, but it's a shocker, since Pawlikowski doesn't really set up the rules for it. I would assume that this turn could alienate many viewers who are trained to watch movies literally, but I went with it.

Meanwhile, Pawlikowski's greatest asset is that he uses his surroundings to brilliant effect; the textures and smells of this grimy corner of the city are, to use an old phrase, one of the characters in the film. As a result, the physical connections between the characters are more sensual and palpable.

Hawke in particular is excellent here, not only speaking his own blend of American-accented French, but courageously accepting the role of an ineffective, weak man, his glasses a prominent part of every scene. One of the most intriguing themes is that Tom and his daughter share the exact same glasses prescription; "we see the world through the same eyes," Tom says more than once.

Though it's disguised as a "thriller," there's a good deal more than thrills to savor and ponder in The Woman in the Fifth. It's worth seeking out. New Video released the DVD; extras include a making-of documentary, and an alternate English audio track.

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