The Big Picture, a French film based on a novel by Douglas Kennedy novels, was, in this reviewer's estimation, hands down the worst film of last year. Awful though it was, however, The Big Picture was thankfully forgettable. It might not have made anyone's career, but it didn't mar a glittering CV either.
The Woman in the Fifth, on the other hand, is director Pawel Pawlikowski's first film since the much lauded My Summer of Love in 2004. It should be a triumphant return to the screen for the Polish artist, whose promising career was set aside during his wife's terminal illness. The sight of his name on the credits is heartening, it is just a shame it is attached to this lifeless, indulgent mid-life fantasia.
A mumbling and expressionless Ethan Hawke, wearing glasses so thick he looks permanently cross-eyed, is Tom Ricks. A fledgling writer, he’s travelled to Paris in pursuit of his wife who has left him, taking their daughter with her. He’s done something to incur her wrath though what exactly is unclear. After falling asleep on a bus he wakes up in a less than salubrious arrondissement. His luggage and wallet are missing.
So Ricks' ends up in a run-down, one room apartment above a café. He has to put up with the unfortunate toilet habits of his belligerent neighbour and work for the shifty Arab that runs the coffee shop, monitoring the shady types over CCTV in an underground room.
Since this is a mid-life fantasy, Tom also has to contend with women tossing themselves at him. The first is the eponymous ‘Woman in the Fifth’ a mysterious woman called Margit. The usually sterling Kirsten Scott Thomas phones in her performance as the supposed cipher. The Woman is a widowed Hungarian ex-pat with a fondness for bathing and dressing Tom, telling him how great he is and basically mothering him in an embarrassingly servile manner.
The second is Ania, a young Polish immigrant who waits tables at the downstairs coffee shop. Despite a sparky performance from Joanna Kulig, Ania even less of a background than the sketchily drawn Margit. She too seems to find Tom’s dour disconnect from the world around him and periodic violent outbursts simply irresistible.
To reveal any more of this insubstantial (though mercifully short) film would sink what little dramatic tension it manages to muster. Suffice it to say, Kennedy seems to lack of understanding of the line between mystery and confusion.
Flawed through The Woman in the Fifth was, however, there are moments that evoke the life and vibrancy that suffused Pawlikowski’s earlier films. The occasional reveries that reduce Tom, and the audience, to the scale of insects or transport them to an imaginary forest are shot with a delicacy and wonder that is entirely absent from the ham-fisted plot and vague characters parading before the lens.
The cinematography, editing and sound are also all fantastic and the lack of cliché in the view of Paris is refreshing. It is just utterly depressing to reflect that it was all done to create a dramatically inert film, with a fantastically unreactive protagonist and female characters that can only dream of being two dimensional is utterly depressing.
Let’s hope for the good of cinema that Douglas Kennedy’s novels stay on the page from here on in, where it seems they can be easier ignored.
The Woman in the Fifth is showing at the Queen's Film Theatre until March 8