Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski, France/Poland/ UK, 2011, 84 mins, in English with some French dialogue
Review by Carol Allen
Ethan Hawke has made some interesting and often unusual choices in his career, such as Before Sunrise/Before Sunset and Waking Life with director Richard Linklater and the title role in Michael Almereyda’s contemporary version of Hamlet. He is an actor who is always up for a bit of a challenge. Here he is called upon to speak much of his dialogue in French, which is not a problem, as he is playing an American and his accent, while obviously not French, is comprehensible. The bigger challenge however is the fact that the story itself is, to say the least, tricky both to follow and to believe in.
College professor/novelist Tom (Hawke) arrives inParislooking for his estranged wife and his small daughter. The exact circumstances of their separation are never explained but that’s not a problem. As he trails roundParisdragging a suitcase on wheels behind him and then encounters his wife Nathalie (Delphine Chuillot), who appears to have no desire for reconciliation, we get a grounded sense of the reality of his situation. He then falls asleep on a bus and finds himself in a poverty stricken, immigrant outer suburb ofPariswith his wallet, his suitcase and all his possessions gone, bar his passport (odd that didn’t get lifted). He finds a room in a low market hotel, where he has to share a toilet with his aggressive neighbour, who never flushes but he can hardly grumble as the owner Sezer (Samir Guesmi) trusts him because he’s an American and lets him live there for nothing, until he can get hold of some money. An unlikely situation and the first point where the story starts to lose its grip on reality
Sezer then offers him a job as a night watchman to pay his way, which involves him being locked in a basement room all night keeping an eye on the CCTV camera covering the stairs – we never find out what that’s all about. He also meets an enigmatic woman Margit (Kristen Scott Thomas), with whom he starts a passionate affair, but not content with that he also starts up with Sezer’s Polish girlfriend Ania (Joanna Kulig) – bit ungracious that, in view of the circumstances. Kulig is also coping with French dialogue with the help of a dialogue coach. Scott Thomas however, whom we know speaks good enough French to have starred in many films in that language, is perversely called upon here to speak English throughout – and of course continue to be enigmatic. And when the non flushing tenant in the room next door to Tom is found murdered with a toilet brush stuck in his mouth and Tom is accused of the crime, he makes a disturbing discovery about Margit, which sends the last vestiges of reality and comprehensibility straight down the pan.
On the plus side Pawlikowski and his DOP Ryszard Lenczewski capture the grotty look and atmosphere of this particularParisbanlieue (District 5 – hence the title) very well and Hawke is always watchable, even though we are as bewildered as he is. Scott Thomas is appropriately mysterious and yes, enigmatic, in a role which is really quite small.
The film is based on a novel by thriller writer Douglas Kennedy. He also wrote The Big Picture (filmed in France as L’homme qui voulait vivre sa vie), whose twists and turns were crystal clear compared to this film. Maybe The Woman in the Fifth makes more sense and is more gripping as a novel rather than a film. And maybe it will prove be to more to the taste of French audiences. In English it’s frankly a bit baffling.