After Midnight in Paris, by Josh Long
Polish fimmaker Pawel Pawlikowski began his career as a documentarian, making several projects for British television. In 2000, he made his segue into the world of narrative fiction with festival darling and BAFTA winner Last Resort. The Woman in the Fifth is Pawlikowski’s third foray into narrative fiction, but the first where he is the sole screenwriter. It may be this difference that hurts his newest film; in an attempt to be reality-bending and disorienting, the story simply becomes nonsensical.
The film’s protagonist, Tom Ricks (played by Ethan Hawke), is an American writer who moves to Paris to find his estranged wife and daughter. The catch is that his wife and daughter are not interested in being found. It is suggested they have come to Paris to escape from Tom, who seems to have some violence in his past. He finds a small café/hotel where he rents a room, and takes a job from the café’s owner watching security cameras for a shady underground facility. He spends his nights there, watching the cameras and writing his daughter a “letter,” which is slowly becoming a novel. At a literature club he meets the mysterious Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas), who invites him to a rendezvous at her apartment in the 5th Arrondissement. The two initiate an illicit relationship, which seems to become a destructive force in Ricks’ life.
It has all of the makings of an intriguing mystery thriller, but at this point the story starts to go off the rails. Through a series of events it becomes clear that Margit is a figment of Tom’s imagination. The problem with this is that police corroborate her appearance and identity – she’s a real person who died some years ago. You may wonder why Tom creates a fictional lover out of a real person he’s never seen or met. The movie doesn’t give an answer. After this reveal, it’s clear that the film is trying to show us that Tom is in a world where he can’t tell reality from his imagination. But Margit is apparently the only fictional factor, and her presence, purpose, and intentions are confusing at best. There’s no indication of where he’s meeting her, or whether he’s supposed to be in a dream, or if he’s imagining she’s someone else, or what is going on. In another film, these questions might be intriguing if left unanswered. But in this film, these answers are critical to have any idea of the plot or themes. The story can’t survive without explaining itself more.
The film’s devolution into nonsense is disappointing, especially considering the suspense of its first half. There are a lot of great ideas and story elements set up, just never paid off. This may in part be due to the film’s 83 minute running time. If you were to tell me there’s a brilliant 150 minute cut out there somewhere, I might believe you. The last 10 minutes come to a screeching halt, leaving too many unanswered questions. The filmmaker seems to be trying to create a metaphorical conclusion, but again, for this conclusion to mean anything, we need a more developed plot.
It’s possible that the metaphors would be more effective if we had a deeper understanding of the characters. Sadly, we’re treated to very little development. Perhaps in adapting the source material (the story comes from a book by Douglas Kennedy; a book I have not read) Pawlikowski is already familiar with the character’s past and intentions, and thus overlooks writing them into the movie. Perhaps it’s a story that is so focused on internal monologue that it doesn’t work when adapted to the screen. Whatever the reason, the film does very little to explore the identity of Tom Ricks. When a film is this reliant on delving into one character’s headspace, that character’s development is all the more vital.
The direction, at least for the first half of the film, is solid. Pawlikowski seems to be a talented visual storyteller, and he does succeed in shooting Paris in a way viewers might not expect. It isn’t the romantic, artistic Mecca that we’re accustomed to seeing. It’s dim, and labyrinthine, and decaying. The subplot involving the security cameras starts out great; it achieves that unsettled sense of dread or suspense the film clearly wants to portray. In these scenes particularly, the filmmaker also succeeds in using the sound editing to ramp up the suspense. It’s unfortunate that this element of the story never goes anywhere.
While The Woman in the Fifth has elements of a successful thriller, it only executes them well for about one and a half acts. After that it devolves into a confusing, ill-intentioned metaphor with no developmental legs to stand on and a plot full of holes. It isn’t that Pawlikowski is an untalented director, but it may be that his screenwriting skills are weak on their own. Despite the weaknesses of this film in particular, it shouldn’t keep viewers from keeping an eye out for his future work.