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July 2012

The Woman In The Fifth

cast: Ethan Hawke, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Joanna Kulig

director: Pawel Pawlikowski

85 minutes (15) 2011
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Artificial Eye blu-ray region B

RATING: 4/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

The Woman In The Fifth

Based on a novel by Douglas Kennedy, Pawel Pawlikowski's The Woman In The Fifth (aka: La femme du Vème) is a monumentally competent and entirely superfluous exploration of a set of themes and characters that are as old as the hills and twice as lumpy. The film begins with Ethan Hawke's Tom arriving in a French airport. Once a successful academic and novelist, Tom is now a penniless wreck with a history of violence and mental illness. Desperate to turn over a new leaf, Tom throws himself on the mercy of his ex-wife only for her to slam the door in his face and call the police.

Desperate for a place to sleep, Tom is taken under the wing of a local café owner who provides him with a room and a job as a night watchman, as long as he refrains from asking questions. Utterly alone and suddenly compelled to deal with the type of violent and desperate people that upper middle-class intellectuals usually spend their lives avoiding, Tom sinks into a mire of self-loathing until a chance encounter with a literary translator sets him on what appears to be the path to redemption.

The Woman In The Fifth is basically a meditation on the high psychological costs of creativity. This meditation is conducted through the medium of Tom's contrasting relationships with two very different women.

The first woman is the translator Margit who, vividly rendered by Kristin Scott Thomas as a creature who is equal parts loyal fan and cruel dominatrix, lures Tom back into the writing game using a combination of gushing praise, cutting comments and ruthlessly efficient sexual intervention. Though successful in re-kindling Tom's creative spark, this strange and manipulative relationship forces an already struggling Tom further and further from safety, as Margit encourages him first to stick with a dangerous job for the sake of inspiration and then to turn his back on his family in order to seek solace in writing.

The second woman, played with admirable lightness by Joanna Kulig, is a Polish waitress named Ania. While the dark and emotionally complex Margit seems more interested in the man that Tom could become, the psychologically transparent Ania is utterly besotted with the broken figure that stands directly before her. Using a combination of loving encouragement and artistic intimacy, Ania seduces Tom into both happiness and artistic impotence. Too busy dating to brood and work on his novel, Tom undeniably feels better while spending time with Ania but this happiness too comes at a terrible price.

Pawlikowski explores these differing characters and relationships with admirable aplomb, his intelligent choice of actors and his clever use of evocative backdrops mean that we are not only clear on Tom's problem but also the unpleasantness of the solutions available to him. Damned if he does and damned if he doesn't, Tom is forced to choose between psychotic disconnection and complete emotional collapse. Indeed, there is absolutely no doubting Pawlikowski's competence as The Woman In The Fifth is both unrelentingly clear and unrelentingly beautiful. The problem is that it is also unrelentingly boring as we have seen all of this far too many times before.

Though competently rendered, Pawlikowski's idea of a man who only becomes complete while in a relationship with a woman is but a pale imitation of the elegant and compelling treatment of the exact same idea in Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive. Similarly, Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys explored the psychological mechanics of writer's block with far more wit and insight than anything on display here. However, regardless of whether or not Pawlikowski deals with these issues in an interesting way, one cannot help but wonder whether these types of issues actually need addressing in the first place.

We are currently undergoing the greatest economic and social crisis since the Great Depression and the political decisions made today will shape the future of entire continents for generations to come. Given that the world is now continuously shifting beneath our feet and that our democratic institutions are positively crying out for an intelligent electorate that can understand and engage with the issues confronting them, do we really need another film about a novelist who is struggling with writer's block? Do we really need another French film in which a bunch of listless Parisians tumble in and out of bed with one another? Do we really need another film in which a terminally passive and unattractive male protagonist somehow finds himself at the centre of a vortex of redemptive totty? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding 'No!'

There was a time when European art house film wanted to blow shit up. There was a time when values were confounded and new ground was broken both in terms of what could be said and how people could say it. European art house film used to shock the world… now it merely puts bums on seats by engaging with the same old themes in the same old ways. In the land of artistic sterility, competence is king and Pawel Pawlikowski's The Woman In The Fifth is an eminently competent film.

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