When I walked out of the screening room after seeing The Woman in the Fifth, I heard a fellow critic say, “I knew we were in trouble when I saw the soft focus.” That was what he had taken away, apparently: an overriding technical detail. I try not to let the opinions of others shape how I view a film in retrospect, but inevitably they’re impossible to dismiss. I stepped away from the crowd clutching Douglas Kennedy’s novel, from which the film was loosely adapted, and told myself I would reserve judgment until I read the book. After finally slogging through its twisted tale of depravity, I feel as though I’m capable of giving the film a fair assessment.
Here’s the quandary: If concessions must be made when translating prose to the screen, how far can the adaptation stray from the original narrative and still take its name? Evidently, Franco-Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski has no qualms with taking liberties, as in The Woman in the Fifth he trades backstory and specificity for ambiance and mystery as heedlessly as he desires. This has benefits and drawbacks, of course, and from the outset the details are hazy. What we know is that bespectacled writer Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke) has come to Paris to be closer to his daughter, although his ex-wife has a restraining order and threatens to call the police when he stops by their apartment. Shortly thereafter, he falls asleep on a bus and wakes up at the end of the line — sans luggage and far outside the city center — in a neighborhood inhabited mostly by immigrants. Without cash or credit, he manages to rent a boarding room above a seedy café using his passport as collateral.
While the setup I’ve described is fairly straightforward, the film alters and condenses events from the book to an inordinate extent in order convey the direness of Tom’s situation. The handing over his passport, in particular, is a critical action, as it transforms the novel’s incessant pitying into a finesse of the hand. It’s also a neat lead-in to the rest of the film’s characters and their interplay. Seeing how desperate Tom is, the pension manager gives him a job as a night watchman in a windowless room where he buzzes in hooded password-bearers for unknown reasons. This gives him time to work on his long-gestating second novel while his days are spent making clandestine visits to see his daughter and sleeping with Margit, a widowed femme fatale (Kristin Scott Thomas). In time Margit becomes his muse and his confessor, the one he trusts in when he gets entangled in a grisly murder.
Between the seamy plot and well-defined personalities, there could be a more formulaic route to the film’s dénouement. But Pawlikowski isn’t as concerned with what we know; he wants us to revel in the beauty and squalor of Paris. Credit goes to cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski, who frames his shots with the care of a gifted craftsman and overlays them with a smoky sheen. The ethereal grays give the film a dreamy feel, mirroring Tom’s fragility and vagrancy. As the story unfolds, we’re absorbed by his plight and begin to see through the myopic lens of his thick glasses. The downside is that the rest of the world is dark, and we’re missing some essential information and a bit of perspective. When the narrative moves from attempts at reunification to sordid affairs, the director bungles the transition; we’re left holding a bag of unanswered questions in an ending that feels tacked-on and obligatory.
Comparing any adaptation to its source is an exercise in ambivalence, as there will always be inconsistencies due to limitations and artistic interpretations. What I found fascinating (and befuddling) was how assured this film felt before Pawlikowski decided to wrap it up for the sake of finality. Most viewers will probably feel unsatisfied or unfulfilled by the conclusion, and I could offer several analogies that would ostensibly ruin the surprise. At its best, The Woman in the Fifth is a striking portrait of despair disguised as a white-knuckle thriller. Had it dispensed with its original narrative entirely, it could have been more cohesive and known its purpose. But you take what you can get, I suppose. If you want my recommendation, I say skip the book and see the film if you’re an Ethan Hawke fetishist.