When a character wears thick glasses throughout a movie, there’s usually a reason above and beyond scoring 20/20 on an eye test. It’s to suggest that the character is meek, an intellectual or is attempting, like Clark Kent, to disguise his true self.
In the case of Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke), the troubled American novelist who is the protagonist of this absorbing psychological drama set in Paris, the glasses are a symbolic tip-off. Moviegoers see the film through Tom’s perspective but come over time to understand that his view may not be entirely reliable.
Tom, who taught at a university and hasn’t been able to write since publishing a well-received first novel, has come to Paris after some sort of breakdown to see his French ex-wife and young daughter. When he shows up unannounced at their apartment, his immediately apprehensive wife calls the police and Tom flees.
His luggage and money are soon stolen, and Tom winds up renting a dingy room above a coffee shop in a dodgy part of town. He gets a dubious job as a night watchman for what may just be a criminal enterprise and, during his off-hours, begins a sensual affair with an elegant and mysterious widow (Kristin Scott Thomas), who tells him she’ll serve as his muse. (She lives in an apartment in the Fifth Arrondissement, a popular neighborhood on the Left Bank in Paris, thereby giving the film its title.)
As events unfold, some of them violent, the line between what’s real and what’s just in Tom’s head seems to grow ever more blurred.
“The Woman in the Fifth” has a very European feel to it despite being loosely based on a novel of the same name by American author Douglas Kennedy. Director Pawel Palikowski (“My Summer of Love”), an English filmmaker who was born in Poland, deftly establishes and maintains an atmosphere of instability and dread. Hawke, all jangly, exposed nerves, gives an effective performance.
Not all of the movie’s pieces fit together — they’re not supposed to — which will frustrate filmgoers who like everything tied up in neat packages.
That makes “Woman in the Fifth” a welcome change from over-processed studio films boasting clearly delineated acts and character arcs and holding few surprises. This one is layered and murky; it requires viewers to interpret for themselves what is going on and then to mull it over afterward to decide exactly what really happened, a refreshing conceit in itself.