The Anglo-Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski may be an unfamiliar name, but you may have seen his wonderfully atmospheric first two features. If you haven't, add them to the Netflix queue without delay: Pawlikowski's 2000 feature debut, Last Resort, made utterly plausible and romantic an unlikely love story between a Russian immigrant and an amusement-arcade manager in a decaying detention center on the English coast. His second, My Summer of Love (2004), launched the career of a young Emily Blunt, who played a coolly insidious Yorkshire temptress with a creative way with the truth.
Pawlikowski withdrew to care for his terminally ill wife after My Summer of Love, only to return with The Woman in the Fifth, a psychological thriller of sorts for which I had high hopes, but whose only feature of note is the writer-director's gift for dreamily sinister scene-setting. In most other respects this inert movie, which clocks in at a trim 83 minutes that feel like forever, is a drag.
It's possible that The Woman in the Fifth founders on its thin source material, a less-than-acclaimed 2007 novel by American author Douglas Kennedy. (A review in The Guardian began with the unpromising line, "Consider the case of an American penis in Paris," and sped downhill from there.)
In the movie, the offending organ plays only an ancillary, off-screen role that's subordinated to the tortured inner life of its owner. Tom Ricks is a stalled novelist and college professor played with maximum possible lethargy by Ethan Hawke, who tooled around the City of Lights with oodles more charm and verve in Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.
Ricks arrives in Paris hoping to reclaim partial custody of his small daughter Chloe (Julie Papillon) from his estranged wife, Nathalie (Delphine Chuillot). Instead, his wife calls the cops, Ricks is robbed blind of everything but the stuffed giraffe he brought for Chloe, and he lands in a seedy hotel whose Turkish proprietor (Samir Guesmin) promptly seizes his passport and puts him to work admitting shady strangers to a shadier warehouse.
In between striding around town in heavy black glasses, Tom writes long letters to Chloe that sound more like epistolary exchanges with Sartre. He sleeps with two beautiful women (Kristin Scott Thomas in full virago mode, and the pneumatic young Polish actress Joanna Kulig) who might be muses, or minxes or the products of his neo-noirish fantasy life.
Indeed just about everyone in the movie, including Tom himself, might be this or that, but the strenuous winks at the audience in the dialogue leave little room for doubt about who's stalking whom, who's benign, ominous or certifiably insane, and who's a figment of an unstable artist's fevered imagination.
Lofty things are declaimed about the hazy boundaries between love and loss, art and life, darkness within and without. The carefully injected bursts of nastiness — a brutal murder involving a toilet brush and some bad sex — feel tacked on, and the efforts at black comedy are inept. I'm not much good at plot, but even I would smell a rat if asked to show up for an assignation at the Rue du Croissant. The pacing is fatally slow and unvarying, the tone wan, and about the only thing Hawke does with much energy is mangle French idioms to a pulp while looking incrementally more anguished.
The Woman in the Fifth has ambience to spare, and a refreshingly grimy take on Paris, city of travelogue dreams. It comes as a great relief that a full half-hour goes by before the Eiffel Tower shows up, lit or unlit; the backdrop to Tom's increasingly paranoid walkabouts is mostly the inner-city grunge of graffiti, peeling walls and steel girders.
Frequent cutaways to an enchanted forest inhabited by an owl whose imperious scowl might give Scott Thomas a run for her snooty money are magical, but largely unmotivated. Pawlikowski has visual flair to burn, but you can't build a movie out of atmosphere alone. The Woman in the Fifth fairly oozes enigma; if only it could drum up something to be enigmatic about.