Pawel Pawlikowski is the director of several television documentaries and film dramas including ‘Serbian Epics’ and ‘Last Resort’, and is one of the smartest and least parochial heads in British cinema. Here, for his first film since ‘My Summer of Love’ in 2004, the Polish-born director adapts Douglas Kennedy’s Paris-set novel ‘The Woman in the Fifth’ and creates a mysterious, troubling study of loss, exile and despair which flirts awkwardly with thriller conventions but sticks in the mind as a portrait of a man crumbling in the face of an unwelcoming world.
Ethan Hawke is the perfect choice for Tom, a harried, scruffy American novelist and lit prof who arrives in Paris to visit his estranged wife and young daughter but ends up living in a dank suburban hotel run by a French-Arab businessman, possibly a criminal, who puts him to work as a night guard at a strange location. While trying and failing to make proper contact with his family – his wife has an exclusion order on him – Tom finds solace in both a sexy, bookish woman (Kristin Scott Thomas, similarly well-cast) whom he meets at a Left Bank party and a young, blonde Polish emigré who works at his fetid temporary home.
What’s real and what’s the product of Tom’s confused state is impossible to distinguish, and occasional cuts to railway tracks in a forest suggest strongly that we’re adrift in someone’s psychosis. Grief and a cruel search for companionship and belonging hang painfully over the film and work to counter some of its more frustrating loose ends and anti-climaxes.