THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH B+
Great Britain France Poland (84 mi) 2011 d: Pawel Pawlikowski
Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, still working exclusively in Britain where it’s been seven years since his last film, is a literature and philosophy expert, doing his post graduate work at Oxford on German literature. Here he adapts an American novel by Douglas Kennedy, called “the most famous American writer you never heard of,” as his work is translated into 18 different languages, but without an American publisher when the book was initially released. This is easily one of the strangest films you’ll see all year, mixing genres and styles, from film noirs, detective stories, and Val Lewton psychological thrillers of the 30’s and 40’s by offering a never ending series of clues, only to discover in the end you’ve been nabbed in a web of deceit, where you likely took a wrong turn somewhere and may have found yourself at a dead end. This may be a story within a story, where the connecting tissue dissolves and disappears, finding yourself in a freefall drop into a completely unrecognizable netherworld. Not sure that describes it, as it’s the story of a lost and possibly destroyed world, but it begins with an American novelist Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke) running away from some horrendous mistakes in America, hoping to see his estranged daughter, but thwarted by an order of protection from the mother, falling asleep on a Parisian bus, only to awake at the end of the line, where his money, suitcase and belongings have been stolen. Rather than report it to the police, he takes a flea bag room alongside other criminals and illegal émigré’s living above a small bar and café, negotiating a price without funds with the seedy Middle Eastern owner with apparent underworld connections, where he agrees to a mysterious off the books job working nights in a locked room in front of a surveillance camera, refusing entrance to anyone except those asking for Mr. Monde, where otherwise he can wile away the time writing to his heart’s content.
Desperately hoping to reconnect with his daughter, all he can do is watch from afar, as he’s a picture of a distraught man living in exile, where he ends up down and out in the underbelly of Paris where the sins of the past prevent him from finding the world he’s looking for, perhaps re-inventing one instead. Shot by Ryszard Lenczewski, much of this feels like getting caught up in a dreamlike nightmare, where there are atmospheric mood shots of gothic imagery or dreamy images of a forest immersed in fog with train rails heading off in opposite directions. Often large bugs are seen scattering around, where always Ricks is portrayed as a desperate man just hoping to survive. His luck changes when he attends a literary gathering, meeting an older, mysteriously beautiful Hungarian émigré Margit Kadar (Kristin Scott Thomas) on an outside balcony a mere few feet away from the Eiffel Tower, a woman whose extensive knowledge of 7 or 8 languages led to her work as a book translator, and an avid believer in his novel, his only published work. The two strike up a torrid affair, where she always has an answer for his ongoing anxieties and concerns, suggesting only he has the power to make things better. Simultaneously, the young Polish bargirl downstairs at the café, Ania (Joanna Kulig), found a Polish translated copy of his novel and has also taken a personal sexual interest in discovering the American in exile, where these two beguiling women both exhibit Greek Siren seductress tendencies, where they tend to portray a fantasy view of the kind of woman he desires.
His luck is fleeting, however, as without explanation some of his enemies start to disappear, where Margit has reportedly been dead for years, where she must be some kind of apparition, yet for him she exists with all her mysterious and exotic sexual allure, where the harder he tries to pull away, the fiercer her love grows, becoming an obscure and intoxicating expression of pure passion. Meanwhile he and Ania have these fantasy afternoons together as well, where she lures him into meadows with tall grass, into this luxurious blend of natural elements, yet throughout all these affairs, he is a completely passive participant, where the women are the sexual aggressors, which has a purely fantasy feel to it, where perhaps the story onscreen has become what he is writing in his novel, where perhaps nothing ever happened, as it’s all been imagined. Seen exclusively through the eyes of Ricks, the pervasive mood of his anxieties and growing paranoia about his disappearing world are evident in every aspect of the film, especially the sexualized elements which are the most intimately personal, where he feels most vulnerable and openly exposed. His world evolves into a Kafkaesque nightmare where reality is questionable, where his part in it is unknown, as the lines between fact and fiction are blurred and indistinguishable, where it’s hard to tell, even by the finale, where we’re not sure just where we’ve ended up, as there remain multiple possibilities, as if we’ve been absorbed into the writer’s imagination.