The Woman in the Fifth (La Femme du Vème)
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When flipping through a catalogue of film festival offerings, it’s not always easy to separate the winners from the losers. With some experience, you may find a few shortcuts that allow you to single out films from specific countries or genres that tend to be safe bets. Or you may find favorite actors that seem to make a film a sure thing. But, no matter how much experience you may have, you can’t always be right—just as I wasn’t when I eagerly rushed off to see Kristin Scott Thomas in Pawel Pawlikowski’s The Woman in the Fifth.

Ethan Hawke stars as Tom Ricks, an American writer and literature professor who packs up his life in the States and travels to Paris in hopes of reconnecting with his ex-wife and six-year-old daughter. Unfortunately, though, he doesn’t get the warm reception he’d been hoping for—and his ex-wife’s rejection sets off a series of events that leaves him penniless and relying on the kindness of a rather shady character named Sezer (Samir Guesmi).

Tom spends much of his free time writing long, elaborate, imaginative letters to his daughter. The rest he divides between Margit (Scott Thomas), an enigmatic widow who pushes him to continue his work, and Chloé (Julie Papillon), the pretty young waitress at the café below his room.

Though its noteworthy cast, its haunting tone, and its mysterious set-up seem to promise a dark and satisfying journey, The Woman in the Fifth remains a mystery long after the final credits roll.

Hawke’s Tom is a likeably flawed character—sweet and well-meaning, though clearly a little unhinged (but, well, he’s a writer, so what do you expect?). And Pawlikowski uses the character to slowly build layer upon layer of fascinating stories: Tom’s troubled past with his ex-wife, his relationships with both Margit and Chloé, his sketchy night job, guarding a building for Sezer. But while all of these plotlines are sure to pique your interest, very few of them are fully explored—or given any sort of closure whatsoever.

The resulting film, then, is more like a cruel practical joke than an enjoyable movie-going experience. It introduces a number of mysterious situations, pulling you in while gradually building them up, making you wonder what’s behind them—and how they’ll all come together in the end. Then, it just ends, leaving you with more questions than answers. And you may find yourself leaving the theater with the distinct feeling that—somewhere, somehow—the director is looking down his nose and laughing at you.

It really is a shame that The Woman in the Fifth comes to such a maddening conclusion. It’s an enjoyably dark and moody thriller with a talented cast—and it could have been eerily satisfying. Instead, it seems to be the stereotypical French film: intentionally obscure and filled with senseless symbolism that’s designed to leave viewers feeling self-conscious and stupid.

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