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18 February 2012

Taking the Fifth

Over the past few years, there have been a number of solid French thrillers that, it has been argued, would have received far less acclaim had they been English or American films. Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One), is one example, and L'homme qui voulait vivre sa vie (The Big Picture) is another. Both are based on English-language thrillers of the same names, by Harlan Coben and Douglas Kennedy, respectively, and both are gripping and compelling and boast great performances from some of the key actors.

So, when I saw the trailer for a new French (well, technically Franglais/Polish) adaptation of one of Kennedy's other works, The Woman in the Fifth, I was optimistic. The trailer definitely gave the impression that the film was of the ilk of Tell No One and The Big Picture, with Ethan Hawke running around Paris, worrying about his young daughter and getting it on with a very Alex Forrest-esque Kristin Scott Thomas. Although KST does sometimes put me off a film, I like Ethan Hawke and I remembered enjoying the novel when I read it a few years ago.

As such, I persuaded two friends to see The Woman in the Fifth with me last night. Unfortunately, although it wasn't terrible, I was rather disappointed and my friends probably felt like I had completely mis-sold it to them. Hawke plays Tom Ricks, an American writer and former professor, who runs away to Paris following a scandal back home (this is never explained in the film, although much more information is given in the book), and tries to reconnect with his estranged wife and daughter. But wifey isn't having any of it and he is forced to seek lodging in the badlands, where he is promptly robbed. He shacks up in a dodgy bar with rooms and is hired by the manager to monitor some security cameras in a nearby warehouse to try to pay his way. Again, we don't really see the point of all this in the film. He meets Margit (Scott Thomas) at a snooty literary gathering and they begin an affair, meeting in her apartment in the fifth--but only after four pm each day. It all gets pretty passionate but we don't see much of Margit; Tom's time is also being occupied by the pretty Polish woman who works at the bar where he lives. But when Tom is accused of murder and cites Margit as his alibi, suddenly, nothing is as it seems. Who is Margit really? And has the recent stress in Tom's life affected him more than he is willing to admit? More to the point, does anyone care?

I don't object to a movie leaving questions unanswered but when even the questions are barely asked and there isn't enough evidence given to the audience for them to form strong opinions as to what is happening, something isn't right. I don't fully remember the ins and outs of the novel--Kennedy's novels tend to resemble one another greatly, often featuring 40-something American writers with dark secrets hidden in their past, attempting to overcome their demons in a European city--but it definitely felt more satisfying than the film. Hawke was good as the sad, accepting Tom, haunted by recent events and desperate to be able to spend more time with his daughter. Superficially, the character is not dissimilar to the one Hawke played in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset; I hope for Jesse's sake that he doesn't turn out like Tom. KST did her usual cold, controlling turn but, as I said before, she doesn't get the screen time her character demands.

The trailer is, it seems, misleading because the film is not a thriller in any meaningful sense of the word: it is beautiful, meditative and melancholy, but it is also confusing and strangely shallow. The books is complex and has many different components and it seems that director Pawel Pawlikowski has tried to introduce too many of them into his 1h25 film, meaning that nothing is treated with the depth it deserves. It would have been far better to cut some of the sub-plots entirely, allowing more time to focus on the most important aspects, especially as a not insubstantial portion of the film is taken up with repeated ethereal, day-dream-like sequences of lush woodland, an amber-eyed owl and close-ups of insects. I don't object to arty films or slow burners but I was expecting The Woman in the Fifth to be a thriller and so the result ended up feeling unsatisfying.

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