"The Woman in the Fifth" can be as clear as mud, as maddening as a puzzle with several key pieces lost for good.
The film, available this week on DVD, casts Ethan Hawke as an American professor and novelist hoping to reunite with his estranged wife in Paris. What he gets is hardly the tourist version of the City of Lights.
"Woman," told in English and French, layers the psychological scars until its hard to see the handsome Hawke underneath. Those seeking concrete mysteries will be more than flustered by the experience. Yet director Pawel Pawlikowski's film, adapted from the novel by Douglas Kennedy, leaves us with a series of indelible moments that supply their own stubborn pleasures.
Hawke plays Tom Ricks, a professor and author with one solid book under his belt. Tom travels to France to visit his daughter and, with serious luck, patch up his fractured marriage. His ex hardly rejoices at his reappearance in her life, and Tom is left to essentially stalk his daughter in order to see her.
Tom's fortunes get a modest bump when he finds work as a security guard, of sorts, for a warehouse. That still leaves him with little money, a depressing apartment which forces him to share a toilet with an unruly neighbor and a malaise with little sign of abating.
For now, Tom is ... existing, nothing more. When he meets an exotic translater (Kristin Scott Thomas), his long-buried passions re-ignite. But has something else flared up at the same time?
It's a breeze not to give too much away here, since the film's maddening approach and slim running time (84 minutes) hardly fill in any blanks. That leaves Hawke to work with a bare number of tools, but he crafts a compelling performance all the same. Tom is driven by something we cannot understand, tortured by memories we're not privy to, and yet he grabs our attention and empathy from the opening scenes.
That leaves "The Woman in the Fifth" to unveil a murkier than anticipated ending that opens a floodgate of new questions.
The DVD includes one bonus feature - "The Making of 'The Woman in the Fifth.'" Hawke confesses he "didn't really understand" the script when he first read it, but he admired the director's past work and made the requisite leap of faith.
Pawlikowski apparently obsesses over his projects. He shares how he thinks over scenes again and again, even mulling them over at the middle of the night before committing the story to film.
Those who sit through "The Woman in the Fifth" may spend part of their next few nights struggling to put all the narrative pieces together. Good luck.
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