A writer and University Professor (Ethan Hawke) arrives in Paris with hopes of relocating to the French capital and reconnecting with his estranged daughter. After tracking down his ex wife and child he is shunned by the former and warned to stay away. His ex tries to convince the daughter that her father has been in prison but he claims he was just ill. The writer soon finds himself robbed of all his possessions and manages to secure a small room in a hotel run by a gangster in exchange for acting as a night guard, an ask no questions role. One evening he meets a mysterious widow (Kristen Scott Thomas) and the two begin a strange affair, ruled by her odd request of meeting at 5pm sharp in her 5th arrondissement apartment.
This is a film with a lot of build up and minimal payoff. I spent seventy five minutes waiting for the reveal in an ever increasingly bizarre film but it never came. It’s very difficult to discuss the film without spoilers so I’ll write what I thought and then present my opinions at the bottom of the page in case anyone doesn’t want any spoilers.
The build up is all fairly promising and there are several interesting characters introduced who have the potential to send the film in one of a variety of directions. The most enigmatic is Margit (Scott Thomas) who is totally unfathomable and begins to blur the lines of the film from her first appearance. At times it feels as though the film is on the verge of going down the gangster/crime route but we only ever get a snippet of a view into that world and are kept at arms length at all times. There are a couple of romantic encounters but again the audience feels very separated from the action. The father daughter relationship is also open for debate but the film never lets you get too close to that either. The audience is always forced to view the film from a distance, without getting too involved with any of the characters. This is frustrating and adds to the confusion late on when everything gets all Mulholland Drive-y.
There are a couple of decent performances in the movie and Ethan Hawke is very understated. He pulls off his role well and you never get to know his background or thoughts. Kristen Scott Thomas looks better than anyone in their fifties has the right to and is also quite good but her role isn’t as demanding as many she’s had in recent years. As such she isn’t stretched but nonetheless she has an impressive screen presence. Joanna Kulig and Samir Guesmi are both good too but neither has enough character or screen time to be memorable. Overall the film starts well and has a decent build up but just as it’s about to go somewhere it loses it’s audience with strange twists and unanswered questions. When the film finished I asked the Siri type thing on my phone for a “Woman in the Fifth explanation” and it decided to answer me by playing Tailgunner by Iron Maiden. The phone didn’t have a clue and neither did I.
Although the film confused me, my girlfriend and my mobile phone I will try and explain what I thought might have been going on in the following lines which contain SPOILERS. It is suggested quite early on that Ethan Hawke’s Tom Ricks has been in hospital or prison and that he perhaps has mental health problems. One explanation of the film could be that he has never left the prison/institution. A lot of the environments he finds himself in are claustrophobic and grimy and could be his mind’s way of making sense of the place he is actually in. During the film he finds himself in a small, dirty hotel room in which he has to share a shower and toilet with a man who himself seems mentally unstable, raps all the time and won’t flush the toilet. Could this be his cell mate and was it Tom who murdered him? Another place he finds himself for six hours of the day (lock down?) is a small room where he has to monitor a screen, letting people in who ask for a certain person. The building he is in feels quite institutional and the corridor outside has a hospital feel to it, with various small rooms off it and a large door with blue light at one end. On one occasion he finds blood on the ground outside which could signify a fight or injury to another inmate. This idea though is complicated by Kristen Scott Thomas’ character who we eventually discover has been dead for twenty years.
There is no indication that Margit isn’t real until it is revealed so but how Tom came to imagine/see her is open to interpretation. One idea could be that when researching his latest novel he discovered her story and began writing about her, slowly turning her into a real person with whom he has an affair with. The film’s ending could mean a number of things too. The bright light seen in the final shot to me indicates death or heaven. Either Tom had just killed himself, perhaps to protect the people around him, or maybe he had been dead all along and had finally accepted the fact. Margit says to him at one point “I’m as real as you are” so maybe like her, he was dead too. There could be a connection too between Margit’s death and Tom’s strange reaction to almost being knocked down in the street by a car.
These are of course just a couple of possibilities and to be honest the film doesn’t really merit too much time spent thinking about the answer. It wasn’t strange enough to accept that there is no answer but was too unusual and weird to leave without one.