Saturday, February 18, 2012

Film Review: The Woman In The Fifth (2011)

Ethan Hawke looks like how I imagine James Franco will when he's in his forties, yet young Ethan Hawke doesn't look anything like James Franco does now. This thought is a thousand times more interesting than The Woman In The Fifth.

Warning: This review features spoilers for The Woman In The Fifth, a bad, bad film whose essential awfulness cannot be fully explored without discussion of its third-act plot developments. Consider yourselves duly warned, both about the spoilery nature of this review and the fact that The Woman In The Fifth is not worth bothering with.

For its first two-thirds, Pawel Pawlikowski's The Woman In The Fifth is an effectively uneasy, if unimaginative mood piece about Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke), a writer and lecturer who travels to Paris to spend time with his daughter, despite the restraining order taken out against him by his ex-wife (Delphine Chuillot). The reason for the breakdown of their marriage remains unexplained, so all we know is that something went very, very wrong, and at some point his wife took their daughter and made a break for it. The lack of any concrete details makes the early scenes in which Tom tries to see his daughter very uncomfortable, and the film manages to maintain that air of disorientation long after Tom begins a descent into a weird and dark Parisian underworld.

Whilst trying to hide from the police, Tom has his luggage and money stolen, leaving him with nothing but a few Euros, his passport and a stuffed giraffe. He stumbles into a cafe and enquires about renting a room from the owner, Sezer (Samir Guesmi), who offers him a job to help him pay his way. The job requires Tom to sit in a room for six hours every night, his only task using the intercom to let people in and out of the secret bunker that he is in charge of supervising. He is never told what is happening in the bunker, and he never finds out. All he knows is that it involves blood. Again, the scenes in which Tom waits in the bunker are weird and off-kilter, particularly thanks to the excellent sound design which heightens Tom's sense of isolation.

The final strand of the film revolves around Tom's relationship with Margrit (Kristin Scott Thomas), the widow of a little-read Hungarian writer who encourages Tom to begin work on his second novel. She does this initially by giving him one of the classier handjobs in cinema history, then proceeds to slightly more ephemeral encouragement by telling him that all the suffering that he is going through is just grist to the mill as far as his writing goes. He needs to know tragedy before he can create anything of substance, and he should treasure his life as it stands because it will lead him to greatness. This is, of course, fatuous nonsense, but the nebulous aspect of the relationship between Tom and Margit adds a frisson to the film, particularly once Tom starts sleeping with Ania (Joanna Kulig), Sezer's girlfriend, placing him in danger from both his obviously criminal landlord and the mysterious new woman in his life.

All of these aspects of the film are, more or less, pretty solid, and had the film proceeded as it had, creating an eerie sense of creeping dread and disjointedness, then it might have wound up being a perfectly fine, if unspectacular, film overall. It really captures the sense that Tom is a man stuck in a situation which he doesn't fully understand, even though it is almost certainly one of his own making.

However, The Woman In The Fifth makes a none too graceful swan dive from sort-of-okay to dreadful in its third act, when Tom is pulled in by the police as a suspect in the murder of his neighbour. He tells them that he was with Margit at the time that the crime took place, and is dutifully informed that Margit committed suicide. In 1991. It is more or less at this point that, had I been watching the film on my own, and not in a cinema with other people, I would have stood up, thrown my hands in the air, and shouted, "Oh, fuck off!"

Yes, The Woman In The Fifth hinges on one of the hoariest twists going; one of the characters being a figment of another's imagination. Whilst the twist in and of itself is not the greatest crime the film commits, the unwarranted seriousness with which it treats that twist renders it completely unpalatable. The subject matter of the film is undeniable lurid and pulpy - add some fight scenes and re-cast the lead and you'd have a slightly worse than average Liam Neeson film - but the solemnity of the treatment removes all potential for it to actually be pulpy fun, resulting in a film which is too dumb to take seriously, yet which takes itself too seriously for it to be genuinely enjoyable.

This creates a paradoxically situation in which the film might actually be better if it was worse. If it wasn't so well directed, or at least was directed by someone who better understood the nature of their own material, or if the performances were broader and less intense (both Thomas and Hawke do very good work, considering) then it could have been a fun, silly little film. Instead, The Woman In The Fifth winds up feeling insulting because it either doesn't realise how stupid it is, or because it does, but believes that its audience is even dumber.

Grade: D-


  1. Absolutely spot on review, well done to you. I wish I had stood up and said oh fuck off in the arts cinema I watched it in. What confuses me, even more than the ending I have to admit, is what Scott-Thomas and Ethan Hawke saw in the script to bring them on board, unless the film went through a major rewrite during shooting. Anyone who eulogises European cinema should be made to watch this pretentious tosh.

    1. I think you make a mistake with your last remark. You suggest that this film is an "european-typen art cinema", but it has nothing to do with european cinema style. Contrary, it is exactly what americans think to be the "european-type" art cinema, and what (in this case) american-thinking european directors make for the american film market. You will not see this film in european "art" cinemas, and hardly this film can be etiquetted as "art cinema" in europe.
      In support of these i can give the exemple of the american film "Twin peaks", it gives me the same "fuck off" sentiment after realising that there is no real plot, just the maintenance of the sentiment of mistery and illusions for those who ask for entertainment and not for culture when going to cinema. It is exactly the same: the plot is too realistic to give you the feeling that the film is about something else then the plot; it is too poor and illogic to give you the feeling that is is about a detective story; and the myteriousness of the story is too pretencious and without any content to giving you a plesure by living that feeling. So after a few episodes you just realise that you have been dumbed.
      So, not everything which is pretencious and ununderstandable, is art, or european... :)

  2. Excellent review...don't watch this pretentious film. I feel sorry for myself waiting for the ending that never came.

  3. Somewhere in that third act my jaw dropped. Still in the drooling stage. Thanks for putting such good words into my stunned and as of yet - useless mouth.

  4. I've just seen this on DVD and can't fully fathom how all the strands fit together. Is he dreaming it all, stuck in a hospital bed? What's happening in that underground bunker place? Why do the Police pull in Sezer for the murder? Does he kill himself at the end? Why does the daughter 'go missing' - was she snatched or did she just go for a wander? TOO MANY QUESTIONS - HEAD EXPLODING!!!!!!

  5. The director is obviously talented but suffers from his own narcissism. Thanks for bringing clarity to this film when there was none to be had. I too, had the oh fuck off moment and I was the ONLY one in the theater.

    You are a great writer, first time to your blog, and I will be back many more times.

  6. Thank you for this review! At least now I know what happened and can be glad I left the cinema and feel sorry for the ones that stayed...

  7. Spot on is right! You should review films... ( sarcasm ). Saw this flick last night ( DVD ) was so angry that the ending left me hanging. As far as movies go, I hate nothing more than investing 1-2 hours and being handed an ending of nonsense like this one! Still, I fell for it... and thought I must not be intellectual "enough" to get it. As I adore cerebral movies, this stuck in my craw and still seething this morning about it....I went on-line to see what I could find out. Read several other interpretations and was unsatisfied until yours.
    Still, I'm glad I saw it... as a movie aficionado, it broadens my knowledge and experience of them.

    I'll have to dig deeper and see what you've thought of some of my favorites.
    Thanks... subscribing to your intelligent blog today!

  8. I think the movie was going on good direction, the only problem (which is a big one!) lot of questions which are in your mind while watching the movie are unanswered at the end. What else can bug you more!?

  9. Thankyou for a great review- at least I now know I'm not stupid!