The Woman in the Fifth (France/Poland/U.K. 2011) Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski. Starring Ethan Hawke, Kristin Scott Thomas, Joanna Kulig and Samir Guesmi. Rating: 7 (out of 10)
EVEN though his family moved out of communist Poland when he was 14, filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski maintains close conceptual ties with Polish cinema - particularly the work of that other "cultural traveller" Roman Polanski. Not just onscreen but in the way a film gets made as well.
Paris-based, like Polanski, Pawlikowski is more than comfortable producing films the "European way" - with multiple sources of funding and international casts and crew.
Both filmmakers work primarily in France but Polish, U.K. and Hollywood influences run through their productions as well. Pawlikowski actually started out making documentaries but switched to fiction work more than a decade ago. In 2004's My Summer of Love, a coming-of-age story adapted from a novel by Yorkshire writer Helen Cross, he brilliantly captured two young British actors, Emily Blunt and Natalie Press, at the beginning of their careers.
This time around the two leads in The Woman in the Fifth, Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas, are both established veterans. The story, based on a best-selling novel by Douglas Kennedy, is used as a starting point for cinematic exploration of an unsettled mind. Hawke, an American writer in Paris who is on the ropes both personally and professionally, meets a mysterious woman (Scott Thomas). The narrative could easily have gone off into Harlequin Romance territory but the director and his cinematographer, Ryszard Lenczewski, steer clear of that approach.
Pawlikowski uses every means at his disposal to create cinematic art. Nothing seems cookie cutter in The Woman in the Fifth - it's an organic process synthesizing what is available to the filmmaker. Context is paramount to Pawlikowski - his character actors are called upon to make significant contributions, location shots around Paris are more than just visual filler and the sublime music (including Arabic Kurdish pop singer Aynur Dogan, Polish cabaret singer Ewa Demarczyk and Handel's baroque Per le porte del tormento) is never merely incidental, adding its own level of consciousness to the mise-en-scène.