A story rife with alienation, paranoia and intimations of madness feels pretty fifth-rate in “The Woman in the Fifth,” Pawel Pawlikowski’s disappointing follow-up to 2004’s “My Summer of Love.” The Roman Polanski of 30 years ago might have made something properly devious and unsettling out of this moribund Euro thriller, set in one of the uglier visions of Paris to grace the screen, where an unhappy American writer (Ethan Hawke) comes under the spell of a mysterious siren (Kristin Scott Thomas). Arthouse audiences are unlikely to be similarly bewitched, though cast names and Pawlikowski’s rep assure some commercial profile internationally.
Adapted by Pawlikowski from a novel by American writer Douglas Kennedy, the film spends almost every scene in the company of Tom Ricks (Hawkes), an American professor and novelist who has come to Paris to mend relations with his embittered wife, Nathalie (Delphine Chuillot), and reunite with their young daughter, Chloe (Julie Papillon). Spurned by Nathalie and robbed of his possessions a short time later, Tom winds up at a squalid hotel run by the shady Sezer (Samir Guesmi), who gives him a temporary job as a night watchman at a nearby warehouse in exchange for room and board.
Attending a local literary gathering, Tom meets the elegant Margit (Scott Thomas), a translator who lives in the city’s fifth arrondissement. Margit takes him to bed and encourages the reawakening of his talents, which have lain dormant since the publication of his first and only novel. But as Tom soon realizes, his new muse’s methods of creative inspiration go beyond the strictly sexual.
Soon he’s lost in a waking nightmare conveyed none too creepily to the audience through hallucinatory shots of crawling insects and what looks like a red-hooded girl lying unconscious in a forest glade. Tom’s possible descent into madness perhaps explains why he doesn’t opt to solve his problems in more practical ways — having money wired to him from the States, for instance, and thus avoid the need to fall in with dangerous thugs. An O. Henry-ish twist merely exposes the story as an empty tease, a campfire tale spun out to a tedious and stilted 83 minutes.
Frowning from behind thick-rimmed glasses, Hawke has rarely looked more nebbishy onscreen than he does here, and his clenched, sour demeanor doesn’t make him especially rewarding company. Nor does he generate intense sparks with Scott Thomas, who’s fine as the figurative spider spinning a most enticing web. Amid all the filth and murk, Joanna Kulig radiates hope and light as a friendly Polish barmaid whom Tom develops an interest in, while Guesmi’s Sezer cuts a suavely menacing figure.
The proceedings are not without a certain humor, much of it stemming from Tom’s unpleasant interactions with fellow hotel guest Omar (Mamadou Minte), whose refusal to flush the communal toilet becomes a plot point of some importance. Ryszard Lenczewski’s lensing attempts to create a hazy, dreamlike mood with blurred shots of near-empty streets and the backs of characters’ heads. With the exception of Tom and Margit’s meeting on a rooftop terrace near the Eiffel Tower, Paris is made to look almost completely uninviting, which would be a dubious achievement even in a more satisfying thriller than this one.