The last time Ethan Hawke played an American writer in Paris was in “Before Sunset,” in which he and “Before Sunrise” co-star Julie Delpy came deliciously full circle.
No such closure is to be had in “The Woman in the Fifth,” an enigmatic slice of gothic suspense directed by Pawel Pawlikowski from Douglas Kennedy’s novel.
Hawke plays Tom, who as the film opens has just arrived in France to reclaim his estranged wife and young daughter. His arrival is met with an immediate call to the police, and the audience is given to understand that Tom’s baggage includes more than just the rolling suitcase he muscles along the Paris streets. Subsequent violent outbursts suggest a troubled history that might even have bordered on the criminal.
With no place to stay, Tom takes refuge in a seedy cafe-cum-hotel, where he strikes up a friendship with a pliant young waitress (Joanna Kulig); at a literary party, he meets a seductive older woman named Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas). Dislocated and alone, haunted by his inability to connect with his daughter and obsessed with his next novel, Tom begins a Dostoyevskian disintegration, with the story ultimately taking a lurid, supernatural turn that is less a parable of artistic sacrifice than a weirdly morbid exercise in ego-flattering wish fulfillment.
Valorized by two beautiful muses, abroad in the Paris of last tangos and second chances, Tom embodies the existential flip side of la vie boheme, right down to its chilly garret and penniless wanderings. Hawke affects a gravelly, American-accented French to play Tom, whose perpetually pinched expression sets off Thomas’ serene, self-assured sensuality -- a fascinating counterpoint to her recent desperate turn in “Bel Ami.” But too many loose ends, including the precise nature of the part-time job Tom takes on to earn a few euros, are left dangling to make “The Woman in the Fifth” a satisfying film. It’s a curio, ripe with dreamy atmospherics and intriguing mysteries, but little else. © The Washington Post 2012