September 14, 2011

THE BIJOU @ TIFF: “The Woman In the Fifth”

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Pawel Pawlikowski is a filmmaker whose name deserves to be better known: his films Last Resort and My Summer of Love are small but beautifully realized stories of intricate human emotion. His new picture The Woman In the Fifth, is in a somewhat different mode, edging toward genre, but it continues to display his skill at detail.
The Woman In the Fifth, with a script by Pawlikowski based on Douglas Kennedy’s book, is set in Paris, where writer and literature lecturer Tom (Ethan Hawke), freshly out of hospital for reasons never fully explained, has gone to see his young daughter. His French ex-wife has no intention of letting him near the girl, and Tom, who is robbed shortly after getting into town, has to find a job in order to have any contact at all with his daughter. He moves into a flophouse and takes a strange position with the manager, serving as a kind of doorman in a mysterious other building the man owns. Tom also strikes up a dangerous relationship with the manager’s lovely Polish mistress (Joanna Kulig).
Meanwhile, a chance encounter brings Tom in contact with Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas), widow of a Hungarian poet and his one-time translator. Margit offers her self to Tom, but there’s something vaguely disturbing about her. Mysterious things begin to happen to Tom, gaps in logic and disquieting oddities, as he tries to get closer to his daughter.
To say more would risk ruining Woman’s compact surprises. It’s not impossible to see where the film is going, but Pawilkowski’s careful handling of the material makes the journey satisfying. (The room and building where Tom carries out his strangely menacing doorman job have a suggestive decor and sound design worthy of Polanski.)
Hawke is very good in a role that had to be carefully played, and Thomas is wonderfully enigmatic as the woman in his life (she lives in the 5th arrondisement in Paris, hence the title). As with Pawlikowski’s other films, Woman In the Fifth works in miniature (it only runs 83 minutes), and doesn’t reach for big thrills or melodrama. In its quiet way, it’s a tremendously accomplished piece of work.

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About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."