The scent of personal catastrophe and furious impulse permeates throughout Pawel Pawlikowski’s The Woman in the Fifth, the Polish-born filmmaker’s first outing since 2004’s seductive and eerie My Summer of Love. Though essentially a work of genre mechanics, in this case a supernaturally flecked thriller, Pawlikowski’s fourth narrative feature deals largely with themes of artistic inspiration and the dark, frustrated emotions that emanate from having ideas stunted or burnt to char via personal issues or social constraints. And following the tragic death of his wife and, to a far lesser extent, the problems surrounding his adaptation of Magnus Mills’s The Restraint of Beasts, Pawlikowski has crafted a film that throbs with substantial personal weight and bristles with a violent, haunting interior life.
A good deal of what defines these rare facets is Ethan Hawke, who here gives his strongest, most effective performance since Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. He plays Tom Ricks, an American novelist and university lecturer who finds himself broke and living above a dingy Parisian café after being robbed of his luggage and threatened with imprisonment by his ex-wife (Delphine Chuillot). Struggling to reconnect with his daughter (Julie Papillon), he takes a seemingly simple job with his sleazy landlord, Sezer (Samir Guesmi), and takes up with two women, barmaid Ania (Joanna Kulig) and mysterious widow Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas).
Pawlikowski, who also adapted the script loosely from Douglas Kennedy’s novel of the same name, develops these narrative strands in a remarkably cohesive way in front of a backdrop of angry artistic impotence. Consistently alluded to but never directly explained, Tom’s violent side and his muddled search for inspiration are intertwined, and yet, when he finds an outpouring of inspiration, in Margit and his bloody, secretive job, he’s still unable to write anything but lengthy letters to his daughter. It’s not that hard to see Pawlikowski in Tom’s position, unable to directly convey the dark, ugly, and painful emotions that he’s faced, but also incapable of merely spinning an impersonal genre narrative.
Working with his regular DP Ryszard Lenczewski, Pawlikowski also succeeds in blending his usual visual preoccupations (insects and nature) with a uniquely dour, itchy view of the City of Lights. This subtle yet singular aesthetic gives the film a ubiquitous potency, whereas a lesser filmmaker’s visual decisions might have buckled under the psychosexual frenzy that erupts in the film’s final quarter. Indeed, when ghosts and old murders start entering the fray, it becomes harder to see Pawlikowski’s thematic ends, but thanks in no small part to Hawke, the enormous stress put on Tom, his melancholic desperation as he heads into his own oblivion, still hits with surprising force. And the film itself is a surprise, in fact: the return of a formidable yet oddly modest director from the pits of a personal hell that can only be echoed in the haunting rhythms of this brilliantly edited, astonishingly assured thriller.