Gates of Torment
By Julien Allen

The Woman in the Fifth
Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski, France/U.K./Poland, ATO Pictures

The expression “psychological thriller” is unsettling for all the wrong reasons. Given that it’s merely a marketing term, rather than an established genre, the films we designate as such often take the shape of a twist-infested muddle whose central plot development depends on a character’s fragile state of mind (such as, say, David Fincher’s Fight Club and Aronofsky’s Black Swan). Alternatively, (like The Machinist or David Cronenberg’s Spider) it can mark a film that’s heavy on psychology but light on thrills. Or, as with The Woman in the Fifth, both. Whatever possessed Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski—whose first two non-documentary features, Last Resort and My Summer of Love,were, by their honesty and pellucidity, genuinely thrilling—to try, after a seven-year hiatus, to concoct something either seductive or meaningful from this material, his film sadly falls between the two increasingly rickety stools of naturalism and stylization. Based on a novel by Douglas Kennedy—an American pulp author of some success in France, whose superior work The Big Picture was also adapted in 2010 with Romain Duris—the film apparently seeks to use a thriller structure as a launching pad for a study of a man’s internal crisis, but the result is a mixture of the inchoate and the pitiful.

Ethan Hawke (sporting a magisterially dreadful French accent, leading one to wonder how his three dialogue coaches could face being credited) plays an academic and writer who has come to Paris determined to visit and spend time with his six-year-old daughter, despite the reluctance of his estranged wife (Delphine Chuillot). He is robbed while asleep on a bus and ends up staying in a dive in the notorious Canal de l’Ourcq, a crime district in the 19th Arrondissement. Invited by a bookshop owner, à la Holly Martins, to a literary event in the rather more gentrified Haussman-designed buildings of the 5th Arrondissement, he meets and is immediately seduced by Margit, a Romanian translator played by France’s favorite mysterious Englishwoman, Kristin Scott Thomas.

While nothing of Hawke’s situation is actually explained, there are clues lobbed in as to what might have occurred in his past (his wife immediately recoils in fear and calls the police on meeting him; his daughter tells him “mommy says you were ill and the police came for you”; he is prone to the odd brief but angry outburst, etc.), all of which have some significance to the ultimate payoff. Offered an insalubrious “gatekeeper” security job for the local crime boss, which allows him to spend time writing a novel with half an eye on a small CCTV monitor, Hawke instead channels Donald Sutherland in Don’t Look Now by imagining (re-viewing?) his daughter walking close to railway tracks in a red mac. He seems to have trouble deciding between a commitment to his art and his emotional needs (it’s never quite explained why he can’t at least aim for a bit of both, like the rest of us).

At his best when treating Hawke’s gradual breakdown (in that this permits him some of the humanistic observation that characterizes his better work), Pawlikowski uses a neat trick of repeatedly interrupting Hawke’s thought processes with an event or a cue on the soundtrack—such as car brakes screeching or banging on his door—producing a jumpy fretfulness shared by the audience. Hawke’s visualizations are also tenderly shot, by Pawlikowski’s regular cinematographer Ryszad Lenczewski, as if seen by a half-conscious person (in a manner reminiscent of Edward Lachman’s work on The Virgin Suicides), which, given that they open the film, entitle the audience to expect something more abstract than what actually follows.

The problems (for Hawke and for the film) really start with Kristin Scott Thomas, who after a few recent dowdy roles, grabs her opportunity here to max out on lipstick and flash her signature cigarette smoking pose, carving off in the process a doorstep-thick slice of glam-ham for her fans. She is particularly ludicrous in a stand-out scene with Hawke which starts as a seduction, then becomes a medical observation of sorts and finally turns into therapy, as she washes him in a bathtub like a dog and tells him he’s perfect. It’s not that she’s bad—on the contrary, as an actress she has more in her armory than most—it’s that her terrifying earnestness collides head-on with the silliness of the script. The explanation for this scene’s oddness comes at the end but is sadly not sufficient to make one feel ashamed of having laughed all the way through it. Yet, an example of how Pawlikowski continues to think originally despite being hamstrung by his own judgment, is in how the scene is scored—by the duet from Handel’s Sosarme, Per le porte del tormento—an unavoidably gorgeous piece of music, written, appositely, for a soprano and a male castrato.

It’s this battle between inventiveness and cliché that characterizes The Woman in the Fifth. Some of the scenes in Ourcq depicting immigrant criminals have a depressingly familiar feel, leading one to expect that Liam Neeson will come crashing through the door at any moment. When Hawke first sees Scott Thomas, he interrupts the woman with whom he is having a conversation, saying “excuse me” and flouncing off—an idea featured in a thousand film scripts but never in real life. A wholly banal scene of Hawke spying on his daughter then approaching her through the bars of the school gate before the girl is ushered away by a teacher, telling her not to talk to strangers without the girl saying it was her dad, competes for eye-rolling honors with a laughably unlikely expository speech by a policeman near the end. Then again, Pawlikowski introduces a conceit that everyone seems to know what Hawke has said or done despite not being present when he said it or did it, making him feel like he is under surveillance—another original idea not properly developed, buried instead by a mountain of implausibility.

Lazy though it may seem, I would be remiss not to invoke Pawlikowski’s countryman Roman Polanski, for whom filming this sort of stuff would have been like falling off a log. Polanski prefers to use penetrative dialogue and human interaction to strengthen both our understanding of character and our engagement with plot. Ironically, given this film’s paucity of either, it is in these realms that Pawlikowski normally excels, in particular in My Summer of Love, where the affair between Mona and Tamsin is so organically and plausibly sprung upon us. If this feels like any Polanski film, it’s not the thematically similar Repulsion or Frantic, but rather The Ghost Writer, principally in its angry-refund-inducing “is-that-it?” payoff. Yet, even The Ghost Writer didn’t feature such a glaring howler as allowing one character to fully and accurately imagine, visualize, and interact with another character who had died before he had ever clapped eyes on them or their likeness.

Perhaps it’s Pawlikowski’s —entirely justified—lack of respect for the material itself that led him to tie himself in knots. If what interested him was a film about a tortured artist, he could and should have written one, rather than carrying through with the novel that was nothing more than a platform in the first place. His first two films featured not a strained or dishonest moment, whereas this film accumulates them. Pawlikowski’s voice is a strong one, but his uncertain commitment to a wholly unremarkable and unmysterious story has muffled and distorted it. An inadvisable Parisian detour—for both protagonist and director.