Light on cheap thrills and conventional danger but heavy on the creeping dread, The Woman in the Fifth (2011) exacts the price that art demands.
In Paris’s fifth arrondissement, at 5, rue du croissant, in the fifth-floor suite, you might find a woman, if she has invited you. She’s selective in her company. She asks that you come at five o’clock.
She’s older than you and uniquely alluring. For everything you know, she knows something more. She’d converse with you in six or seven languages, but your small talk doesn’t interest her.
Neither do you in the way you might like. She appreciates your attention, but only when she wants it. Otherwise she finds it expedient to ignore you, until the instant that your devotion wanes. That she notices, and she punishes you for it.
She’s all nine Muses and Robert Graves’ White Goddess, about as good for you as Tennyson’s Vivien and about as attainable as Dante’s Beatrice. The price to be with her is to sacrifice everything, every existing relationship, every competing passion or dream, and every last breath, including your last, which she’d rather have sooner than later, really.
What she offers is the chance to write something worth reading. Not to gain recognition from it, not even necessarily to complete it. Just the same chance that Marlowe had or Wordsworth had or the Brontës had. You’re not selling your soul to her. You’re selling your life for the sake of your soul.
Do you climb the stairs to her door?
Pawel Pawlikowski’s The Woman in the Fifth (2011), loosely adapted from the Douglas Kennedy book, introduces us to someone who might: Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke), who may or may not be from Minnesota and whose first and only novel so far, Forest Life, almost won a Pulitzer. He might have been a few years away in prison, or he might have been in a mental ward, but his explosive temper hasn’t improved.
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He’s in Paris to be closer to his daughter Chloe (Julie Papillon), which amounts to him stalking her outside her school and flouting the restraining order that his ex-wife Nathalie (Delphine Chuillot) has put on him. He’s itching to revenge himself with a custody battle, but his Forest Life proceeds are likely long gone, and someone stole his traveling money, along with his suitcase and everything in it, a couple hours after his plane touched down.
So he lives on a tab (and a surrendered passport) in a single room above a café, where he shares a toilet with someone named Omar (Mamadou Mint), who refuses to flush on principle, and works for Sezer (Samir Guesmi), the café owner and part-time crime lord. His job is to sit behind a locked door and monitor the street outside and buzz in anyone who asks for Mr. Monde. He’d like to know why, but not badly enough. He spends his downtime writing a letter to Chloe, which is approaching the length of a manifesto and which will probably need a subject index.
He’s not yet obscure enough not to be recognized when he visits an English-language bookstore, which gets him an in at a literary gathering, where he meets Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas), the former muse and translator of her Hungarian-author husband. “A thankless task,” Margit assures him. Her husband is out of the picture, she says.
Margit is the woman in the fifth and a firm believer in the power of disaster to keep her novelists haunted and broken. It’s how you get the novels out of them. She encourages him to embrace his tragedies, to make them worse under her expert guidance, in preparation for his serious work. But he must never hope for anything better—this is where he’s gotten it wrong. His sin isn’t that he wrecked his marriage so completely that his wife put the Atlantic Ocean between them; that much was inevitable, given how bad at marriage he is. It’s that he yearns for a family, for the mundane, the ordinary, which he believes can somehow make him whole. Margit will see that he pays for that. And if he chooses something for himself besides misery, she has the ability to take it away, mysteriously, impossibly, without explanation.
(Her supernatural influence might come at a price. She might be paying for past sins also, and she might have no choice but to do her “thankless task,” but the movie only hints in this direction.)
The anti-Margit is in his life, too, in the form of the significantly younger Ania (Joanna Kulig), a Polish expat who works the café and sleeps with Sezer and is terrified of him. Ania has never met a novelist before, but she would rather die of dysentery (one supposes) than let this particular example of a novelist experience any more than a moment’s discomfort, much less suffer for his art. She brings him something in every scene. A coffee. His papers. A glass of wine. She nurtures everything in him that isn’t the writer. But she doesn’t seem to understand that the the writer part of him is the only part that works. He’s smashed the rest beyond repair.
The acting here is very good, but with Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas, I’d have been more surprised if it weren’t. The script is strongest at its most original, with the tension between Tom’s irreconcilable needs, which was buried in the novel, if it appeared in it at all. Elements from the book that were borrowed more faithfully, like Tom’s brushes with the Parisian underworld, add little to the plot and end up going nowhere.
The movie is polarizing, probably because it’s ambiguous. It gives us enough reason to doubt Tom’s reliability, so we’re never fully sure that what we’re seeing is happening anywhere outside his head. And the ambiguities themselves are maddeningly ambiguous. Does Margit give her husband’s surname as Kado, or is that just how she pronounces Kadar? Kadar is the name that Tom uses. We get a close-up of Margit’s calling card, which Tom is busy brooding over, but his head obscures the last couple letters. All we see is the K-A-D. Is this a coincidence? And is the title of Tom’s novel really Forest Life? Because the cover in the bookstore says Downside Up. The blurb on the back says Downside Up. It’s his letter to Chloe that’s about a forest, but are these details clues to anything? They might be waiting for the meticulous to find, or they might be the result of lax continuity and an art department confident that most people won’t notice. If I’m betting, I’m betting the latter.
I won’t give my personal reading of the film. That would spoil too many surprises. I’d argue, though, that Tom isn’t hallucinating, that the literal interpretation is the most plausible one. But then I’ve also felt the pull of the woman in the fifth.