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The Woman in the Fifth 2011

The Woman in the Fifth | La femme du Vème | Kobieta z piatej dzielnicy

The Woman in the Fifth-La femme du Veme-Kobieta z piatej dzielnicy

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About the Woman in the Fifth 💬

American professor and novelist Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke) comes to Paris desperate to put his life together again and win back the love of his estranged wife and daughter. When things don't go according to plan, he ends up in a shady hotel in the suburbs, having to work as a night guard to make ends meet. Then Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas), a beautiful, mysterious stranger walks into his life and things start looking up.

  • What is her secret?

Their passionate and intense relationship triggers a string of inexplicable events... as if an obscure power was taking control of his life.


Disguised as a mystery thriller, THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH is in effect a very precise description of a familiar condition. Tom Ricks wants it all - admiration, literary greatness, love, family - and he refuses to accept that all of these desires have a price and could be mutually exclusive. As Tom's grip on reality weakens and the facts of his life begin to fuse with fiction, he slides into a nightmare from which there's no waking up.

Our film dramatizes the mental disintegration of a man who fails to pay attention to the outside world, who lives in his own head and is totally incapable of understanding his true motives. It's a condition I'm familiar with and it's what first attracted me to the material. In that sense, Tom Ricks is not unlike the protagonists of my other films, from my first documentary MOSCOW TO PIETUSHKI to LAST RESORT.

The Paris of this film is an unfamiliar and ambiguous landscape - a Paris of the mind. I wanted to achieve this sensation without any trickery or special effects, but by means of subtle stylization, i.e. through the choice of locations, framing, lighting, and a creative use of sound. I've employed such defamiliarization strategies in my previous films, but in THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH, I went much further to turn Margit's apartment and Sezer's warehouse - where unspeakable things may or may not be happening - into a Lynchian netherworld reflecting the progressive derangement of our hero.

Though the world of the film is stylized and dream-like, the acting needed to be as psychologically 'real' as possible. For the novelist hero I chose Ethan Hawke, an actor with a keen intellect and imagination - qualities that are simply impossible to act for those who don't have them. Ethan also happens to be a novelist in his own right and is totally at home with the creative struggles - the moments of euphoria and omnipotence and the pangs of anxiety and self-doubt - that afflict his fictional character. Ethan embodies the right balance between neurotic edge and irresistible boyish charm. It is key that the audience is in sympathy with our hero, even when it dawns on them that he is dangerously deluded.

The elusive, timeless Margit is played by Kristin Scott Thomas - an actress who can be dark, maternal, tragic, erotic, ambiguous, romantic, urbane. For the role of romantic autodidact Ania, I've chosen the brilliant young Polish actress Joanna Kulig, who generated the right mixture of warmth, spontaneity, and demotic charm.

As was the case in my previous films, the script for THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH was a rather lean and stripped-down text. The idea was to give myself and the actors space to add texture to the characters and scenes during a lengthy process of workshops. The script was there to convey the shape, the feel, and the overall meaning of the piece, but the real ''film-writing'' for me began in rehearsals, location scouting, prep, and the actual filming.

The film is a strange cultural hybrid: it is set in Paris, drawn from an American novel, played by a multi-national cast, and directed by a Polish filmmaker with a documentary background. The dialogue is spoken in French and English, languages in which I feel equally at home.

My goal was to strike the right tone for the film - a precarious balancing act between realism, absurdist comedy, and nightmare - and to stick to it with unswerving confidence.

Pawel Pawlikowski


Q: What specific themes were you interested in exploring through this story?

The conflict in a man who's split between his need for love and family, and his narcissistic urge to create-to use reality for the sake of art. That affects a lot of people, including myself. So it's something he can't bring into line. He thinks he's coming to Paris to repair his relationship and reconnect with his daughter, whom he idealizes and addresses [in letters] without actually understanding anything about her. She's too young, and he projects a lot into her that's clearly not there. At the same time, he's got this demon that makes him want to write and transform everything into some kind of mental picture. These tendencies are difficult to reconcile in life: to love and give yourself totally to the other and also live out your creative desires and fantasies.

Q: Tom Ricks is shadowed by violence throughout the film, which seems to have a metaphorical aspect as well. Does that relate to the artistic consciousness you spoke of?

Violence comes out of anxiety, fear of the unknown, feeling vulnerable. Most artistic people are violent in some way, and violence comes out of frustration. I think it comes out of the inability to reconcile things that are pulling you in different directions. Some of the violence is directed against himself-he's just very angry, I suppose. At the same time, he's very sweet. That's one of the reasons I cast Ethan: he's warm and likable. Not every actor can give you that without having to strain.

Q: Tom inhabits two worlds: one is the well-heeled, pretentious Parisian literary scene, the other is a vaguely criminal netherworld-and he doesn't belong to either one. He's a stranger in a strange land, and he's also a foreigner to himself.

Exactly. He's a consciousness cut off from its moorings. The world of the salon is shallow and inauthentic, and he's obviously suffering in that crowd. Nor does he belong in the world where rough realities and material relations are crucial. So he's completely cut off, and he's holding onto this idea of love and his daughter, upon whom he projects some kind of idealistic innocence. She keeps him sane but it's another source of insanity.

Q: There is a correlation between the letters he writes and the dream imagery of a forest, which is almost a mystical place. You focus our attention on the life of that place, the beetles, bugs, spiders.

It's a kind of fairy tale he used to tell his daughter when she was little about a magical forest. But again it's ambiguous because that same forest becomes a scary trap, a bit of a nightmare. Everything in the film works both ways. It becomes a nightmare world full of hostile animals and a feeling of imprisonment.

Q: How personal was this film for you?

I've been interested in mental problems for a while. It's affected my family and me, personally-so it's on my mind a lot. That shadow line, how everything can flip into its opposite and love can slide into something that's a nightmare prison. I wouldn't deal with these things head-on. That's why it's interesting to make a film that's thoroughly metaphorical and has its own poetics, without the histrionics of a film about mental illness. It's very difficult to make a film about that without the actors letting themselves go, without being narcissistic about it. So I was interested in making something a bit more opaque and resonant of all sorts of things.

Q: Is the film connected to a grief that you've experienced?

Yeah, definitely in some ways, but I don't want to sentimentalize it. We all have some emotional core which energizes the whole enterprise, because why else would you make a film? There has to be some demon that propels you, some good emotional reason for doing it. Otherwise, you would spend two years of your life suffering through a technical exercise!

Q: How did you go about creating the different stylized environments that Tom wanders through?

There was a long process of looking at Paris slightly against the grain, not taking it a face value. I was a bit desperate at first because Paris is so self-evident. You look at it and think, What can I do to transform it? You know the texture of it already-the cafés, the creamy buildings. There's very little contrast or strangeness, unlike London or Prague. So I spent a long time zig-zagging around Paris with my production designer on a Vespa looking for strangeness, like images from Poland in the 70s. Something that was Paris but not Paris, that could work both ways. We took a lot of photos and rearranged them on a table, and then I rewrote the script in terms of what I found. I had a really great production designer, Benoît Barouh, who was tickled by this procedure. He's one of these production designers who feeds off documentary reality, but who loves stylizing. I suppose that's why he was keen to work with me. And then I brought my Polish cameraman, Ryszard Lenczewski, who's tremendous. I took him to my favorite places and we took some more specific photos and did some tests and started building this slightly abstract world. Sezer's café was in a derelict building and was practically created from scratch with bits and pieces found around Paris. The idea was to make the café feel naturalistic and real, but abstract at the same time. That's something I do anyway, so it wasn't the first time.

Q: You also created very specific color schemes for each of those locations: cool blue tones for Ania's flat, red saturated tones and sensual lighting for Margit's, and green-gray hues for Sezer's place.

Green and red are complementary; we used them in MY SUMMER OF LOVE as well. The world of Sezer and that hotel café was slightly nightmarish and hellish, full of anxiety and some spiritual deprivation as well. Margit's world's starts out being cozy, warm, seductive, even maternal. Then it becomes a more hellish environment. It was meant to be a relief after the green world of the café, to enter Margit's flat. That's one of the ways we tried to make believable the fact that Tom's character would want to go back there.

Q: What did Ethan and Kristin bring to the workshops you conducted that amplified their characters?

They brought emotional intelligence and know-how. We had some dialogue and scenes and just rehearsed. When something felt awkward or inauthentic or cumbersome, we thought, How else can we do it? So I was reinventing the film by means of the actors. Kristin did something heroic, playing somebody whose backstory or psychology we don't know, really. She's possibly a projection of the hero's mind. How do you play that? Most actors would panic and run away. We worked on it by elimination-we had attempts at dialogue and little gestures. Sometimes we thought, That's too concrete, too rich, too real, that's too much information-it was like a tightrope at all times. How do we find a throughline for her that feels ambiguous, mysterious, but believable, and with its own energy so you go with it? She is a brilliant actress-I can't imagine anyone else doing it. I think she enjoyed the role.

Q: Joanna Kulig has done a bit of acting in Poland. How did you find her?

She was in productions for the Slowacki Theater in Krakow, one of the best in Poland, and had done a couple of films, but she's a relative newcomer. She's also a singer. I saw her for another project I wrote for which I was casting, and she struck me as original, talented and fresh. When I was writing this, I generated the character for her, and also as a counterpoint to Margit, because she couldn't be more of a contrast. They become the two women who pull Ethan in different directions. Joanna's incredibly musical in her scenes. My way of working with her was trying to give a musical shape to each of her appearances. She waltzes in, pirouettes, then exits. It's not dialogue-based, but more like a little performance with a beginning, middle, and end. And because there's very little communication between her and the hero apart from two scenes toward the end, they are like little performances. That method seemed to work quite well.

Q: Samir Guesmi brought a lot of authenticity to the role of Sezer, the café owner. Where did you find him?

I had a fantastic casting director in Paris, Stéphane Batut, who cast his net really wide-which I had asked him to do. Very often in England when you have casting directors, they obsess with the theater, whereas in France they look far and wide, or at least Stéphane did. Samir did a comedy film before this but as soon as he came in, you could see there was interesting energy. He had an amazing face and a kind of plasticity-and a great keenness to learn. I wanted everyone to be expressive. I didn't want an average face. It was another discovery for me and a great pleasure for me to work with him. He definitely took the character to another level. In fact, all the characters-the policeman, people at the literary party-each one is a little work of art. It gave me real pleasure to make a film where nobody's just functional. There's a woman at the literary soirée who talks some nonsense about democracy, and she's actually a famous intellectual in France, a TV personality whose views are diametrically opposed to what she's saying. I just planted her in there, and she's really expressive. I loved that. We were bursting out laughing when she was reading her lines, and there were many other funny moments we didn't put in the film because it would have unbalanced it all.

Q: There is an under a layer of absurdist humor here and there, whether it's around Tom's disgruntled hallmate Omar, or the almost comically Gallic old lawyer Tom consults with about custody rights.

He's a real lawyer, by the way-but retired, and he had no acting experience! He's got an amazing face, with a lot of presence. You get those kinds of absurdist nightmare elements in Kafka as well. The actor who plays Omar is a real rapper whose music we actually used in the film. He was quite expressive too. If you give such actors freedom, they come back with good stuff and then you choose.

Q: THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH draws on different genre elements-psychological thriller, crime drama, romance-without embracing any of them completely. How does that differentiate this film from your two previous fiction features?

I tried to make it without worrying about genre. There's a guy lost in Paris, there's a mystery woman, there's a death, there is love, but the whole film was like a shot in the dark. The idea was, let's give it its own momentum and not worry about genre signifiers. And that was scary because then you rely on the audience to be generous and watch it properly. But it's also exciting because I'm so bored with watching films where I know what the game is immediate. If the film has its own poetics and seems to make sense, though we don't quite know how, I like that. It's what I want to see. As for my previous films, they all sit in kind of abstract environments, though they had a clear, naturalistic logic. As much as I can, I try to remove them from the here and now. They were happening in a three-dimensional world, instead of five dimensions. So this was different. Here there's a strange mechanism, not love. I tried to create a slightly hypnotic atmosphere at the beginning. Some people will go on that journey with me and others will not, sticking to naturalistic expectations.

Q: Were there any source inspirations apart from the book?

I grew up in a certain type of cinema, so I'm steeped in a certain tradition-I love Polanski in the '60s, David Lynch, the Coen brothers. But I realized, when I thought of films like these, that they were too broad or too weird. There wasn’t one film that became a point of reference at all.

Q: The film has a true multi-national character: the actors speak Polish, French, and English, and the story of the film itself, about an American in Paris, is another gesture of cultural hybridity.

Well, what you want to avoid, because of production funds coming from different countries, is what they call the ''Euro-pudding.'' You know, I am a cultural hybrid myself: I'm Polish but I've lived abroad most of my life, since I was 14. I've never made a film in Poland. I spent a lot of time in Paris and somebody like Tom Ricks seems familiar to me. I totally relate to him. I selected materials which felt right for the film, and right for this world, but were also familiar to me. Nothing about the film is exotic to me. Nowadays Europe is pretty cohesive anyway. I speak French, so switching between languages is no big deal-it's what I do anyway. I'd love to be making films in my backyard in Iran or Argentina, like others. But I live in some no man's land between cultures-that's my backyard.

Q: How does your background in documentary inform what you do as a narrative filmmaker?

When I was making documentaries, everyone was telling me, ''Your images are so peculiar and stylized, you should be making fiction features.'' That's a misnomer- what they really meant is that there's a particular world in my documentaries. I didn't just record what’s out there in a verité manner. They were quite stylized and carefully edited and they have this slightly abstract quality, even though they deal with reality and quite dramatic situations. There was always a tendency toward the metaphorical and imagistic. What they gave me was a sense of freedom and the confidence to follow my nose. If something doesn't feel real or expressive, let's do something about it quickly. They gave me the courage and desire to sculpt things differently, to not be so formulaic and think on my feet, to make sure there's life on screen-and some kind of poetry.


Q: Since THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH is suffused with ambiguity, there's a real sense of discovery for a viewer; I imagine there must have been one for you as well in pinpointing how best to handle Tom's conflicts and contradictions.

I've never really had this kind of experience before: I wasn't really sure what kind of movie we were making. Pawel came to see me in a play in London and we got along really well. He talked about the idea of Doug Kennedy's book but was clear that it would just be a launching pad for his own, and I signed on to take this journey with him. We discovered the movie and the characters by diving into our own subconscious. The language and vocabulary of cinema is something he's deeply immersed in. We had a lot of ideas about how to make the movie fun. It's a portrait of madness, you know? And though it's told from Tom's point of view, he doesn't see himself that way or even understand his own failings. Normally in film you ask, Are the characters likable? Does it have a beginning, middle, and end? Those concerns weren't really present in Pawel's agenda. There was no genre he wanted to imitate. And it was incredibly exciting to work with him because of that.

Q: How do you walk the tightrope between trying to serve a director's vision and creating something of your own when embodying a character like Tom Ricks?

Tom reminded me of a character I played when I was a kid. I kept thinking about Todd Anderson in DEAD POETS SOCIETY and the little [prep school] jacket I had to wear in that film. What would have happened to him 20 years later? I try to make a film as personal as possible, each time I go in front of the camera, even if it's some corny entertainment movie. I like to have that going on, and it makes it interesting for an audience as well. Tom is a guy who's reaching midlife and not sure he can go on or that he has the tools for how to grow into a fully mature adult. He's hitting a crisis point or at least that's where we find him when the movie opens.

Q: You're a writer and novelist - and also a father - so his struggles must have resonated with you on many levels.

Absolutely. I could really relate to Tom Ricks: early success, trying to figure out how to be [a better person]. We all have these ideas about how to be a parent before we have a kid, and then when you do have kids and get slapped against the daily nature of everything, it's much more subtle than you imagined it to be. I tried to use that and put it into the movie. Pawel loves that - he really encouraged us to make this movie together, and that's the fun of working with him.

Q: Was there something in your first meeting with Pawel that you made you think: ''This is a guy I can work with. He's got good instincts.''

To be totally honest, I was so blown away by the voice in MY SUMMER OF LOVE and LAST RESORT and how unlike other movies they were, I knew I wanted to work with Pawel before I even met him. So it was a relief when we did meet because we got along well. He and I are very simpatico about our love of cinema. We both feel slightly out of fashion in the kinds of movies we love.

Q: Pawel likes to workshop with his actors to create characters and shape the story. How did that jibe with your own process?

One of the things that's unique about the way Pawel works is that we'd shoot for a period of time and then he'd take off for 10 weeks or so. Then he'd come back and rewrite the script based on what he learned in the editing. We didn't ''re-shoot'' anything, or do different versions of the same scene. It was more like: ''This character is interesting to me and I want to know more about him, so let's write another scene for her.'' Or ''This character isn't very interesting, so let's cut that part of the story out.'' Pawel and I worked really hard on my character. I went up to Oxford and we worked on the letter Tom was writing to his daughter, thinking it would be included in the movie. It wasn't, but I think it helped us to know this guy's inner life. It helped shape the editing of the movie, too. That's the unpredictable part of a collaboration when you're trying to discover a process. Pawel doesn't have a rule sheet about filmmaking. He doesn't have a shot list. He's old school in his attempt to tell stories with, for lack of a better word, poetry. He doesn't have any more of a game plan than John Ashbery does. He has things he wants to say, words he likes to use, and expressions he chooses to articulate them, and then we would just go and play on set. It was fascinating. And it was also incredibly frustrating at times because you would pour yourself into a scene and then he would decide he didn't like it and we should scrap the whole thing-after you'd spent the day crying!

Q: As an actress, Kristin was in a precarious position with this role because it becomes increasingly unclear whether she's a projection of the author's mind.

Pawel's really working in symbols and madness and love and death. It was really challenging. We came up with a lot of those scenes on the spot. What is a sex scene with that kind of character like? Well, it becomes more of a masturbatory scene, doesn't it? I was so impressed with Kristin-she's such a powerful presence. There aren't many people who could embrace that.

Q: The way Pawel shoots Paris is unlike anyone else...

He makes Paris look like Bulgaria!

Q: Was it different on the other side of the camera, too?

Yeah, because the headspace was so different. It's an anti-romance. I think Pawel enjoyed taking this dark, romantic study and placing it in the City of Lights. Because wherever you are in your head is where you are. You could live in Detroit and if you're in love, the place is magical. And if you're depressed, Paris can be a bleak place.

Q: Films about writers and artistic minds and the creative process often get it so wrong. Rarely do we get a strong sense of the inner life of an artist.

The process of creativity is easy to glamorize to the point that it becomes ridiculous. You can show a boxer boxing, but how do you make a film about William Faulkner? What's interesting about him is not his drinking and his relationships, but his poetry. Can you name any great films about enlightenment? There's an endless library of books about spiritual awakening, but it's kind of impossible to film, because it's all happening inside, and so does real creativity. I think Pawel did a nice job of showing the torture of that experience. You sense the only way that Tom can do anything positive with his feelings is through art because it's not going to happen in his daily life.

Q: The symbolic analog to his writing process is a basement room that he's locked into where there are some pretty unsavory things happening outside the door.

Isn't that fascinating? That's where Pawel's kind of a genius: Tom's trying to find his inner muse and around him something horrible is happening that's he's complicit with. Maybe that's a larger metaphor about trying to tell stories and win the Pulitzer when all around us is war and famine and the whole earth is falling apart. Or maybe it's just that his life is outside that door and it's in a shambles.

The Woman in the Fifth Movie Details 🎥

Directed by

Pawel Pawlikowski

Writing Credits

Pawel Pawlikowski (Screenplay)

Douglas Kennedy (Novel)


Ethan Hawke

Kristin Scott Thomas

Joanna Kulig

Samir Guesmi

Delphine Chuillot

Julie Papillon

Geoffrey Carey

Mamadou Minte

Mohamed Aroussi

Jean-Louis Cassarino

Judith Burnett

Marcela Iacub

Wilfred Benaïche

Pierre Marcoux

Rosine Favey

Grégory Gadebois

Music by

Max de Wardener

Cinematography by

Ryszard Lenczewski

Genres: Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Countries: France, Poland, United Kingdom

The Woman in the Fifth Official Trailer

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