There are lots of curiosities about “The Woman in the Fifth,” and not all of them will be resolved by the end of the movie, either. So if you want your loose ends all tidied up by the film’s ending, this one’s probably not for you. If, however, you enjoy some mystique, some unexplained developments, some quiet spaces for personal reflection that don’t advance the plot, some intentional open-endedness, and if you’re even willing to put up with some viewer deception, well, this little indie film with subtitles will live up to your artsy expectation.
Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke) flies into Paris speaking the language, which is a good thing, but it goes downhill quickly for him. He falls asleep on the bus and is robbed of both his luggage and his money. At the end of the line, when the driver wakes him up, he can only stumble into a dark, seedy-looking inn and bar, where the owner is willing to rent him a cheap room upstairs, but the “patron” will hold Tom’s passport until he somehow earns the money to repay. Tom says he is a university lecturer in literature and a writer, but he apparently neither has a job nor seems in a hurry to get back to one. Upstairs, he has to share bathroom facilities with a gruff and rude tenant in the hovel next to his. He locates the apartment of his ex, trying to see his estranged 4-year-old daughter, Chloe, but his ex tells him to go away, and if he persists, she’ll call the police, which she does. She claims she’s afraid of violence. Here we learn that Tom has been in the hospital, but he assures his French-speaking daughter that he’s back now, and he’s here to stay.
Tom spends much of his time in the bar downstairs, where the Polish waitress, Ania (Joanna Kulig) starts flirting with him. Tom wanders into a bookstore, where he discovers a lone copy of the only book he has had published, and the owner recognizes him and fawns over him and invites him to a gathering at his house for writers and book lovers. There, Tom meets Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas, an Englishwoman who really can speak French, but here she pretends that she’s part Hungarian, and puts on that accent with her English). Though Tom seems distracted and distant, somehow Margit sets her sights on him, anyway. Maybe, as a beautiful and stylish single woman, she appreciates the rarity of someone who isn’t trying too hard to impress her.
Tom, desperate to see his daughter, becomes kind of a stalker at her playground, and occasionally calls her over to the fence to say “Bonjour,” before one of the teachers comes over and warns her about talking to strangers. Desperate for funds, Tom accepts a strange job from the “patron,” sitting in locked room for six hours and watching a video screen, buzzing open a metal door to anyone who gives the right password. Tom finds that he’s curious what is going on behind the door that he only sees on-camera, but it’s just one more thing that can’t really be known.
So here’s this isolated American expatriate, who tells Margit that he feels like the “real” him is somewhere back in the States, giving university lectures in the morning and attending his daughter’s piano recitals in the afternoon, but the “shadow” of himself is here, stuck in space and time and going nowhere. Margit comforts him and encourages him, claiming she wants to be his muse, but also warning him that he has to get rid of “that Polish girl,” a warning that Tom’s also received from his gangster-looking fellow tenant upstairs. Meanwhile, we have long, lingering shots of beetles crawling over tree bark, or foliage in the sunlight. And we begin to suspect that the line between fantasy and reality might begin to blur for Tom, the lonesome foreigner in a strange land.
The events which follow aren’t really fully explained. Neither is the ending. The viewer is left to decide not only what happened, but which possible narratives would be consistent with the dialogue. “The Woman in the Fifth” certainly isn’t for everyone. But it’s an unexpectedly quiet little conundrum that invites puzzlement, and encourages speculation.
Ronald P. Salfen is pastor of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.