A college lecturer flees to Paris after a scandal costs him his job. In the City regarding Lights, he meets a widow who could possibly be involved in several murders.
As Tom, Hawke is appropriately vexed being a visiting American trying to re-connect regarding his ex-wife and their six to eight year old daughter with France. While minimal details are revealed, it’s clear that there was a very good reason they fled, as Tom forcefully penetrates their new home, prompting a police contact. It’s also striking precisely how quickly he departs after the arrival of police force, busting into a whole run as their sirens blare.
It’s revealed that Tom is usually a college professor stateside, though the suggestion is actually he’s exited this location, and not necessarily on good terms. Where his journey requires him afterwards, however, feels considerably removed through reality. Despite all his dollars and luggage being stolen, he manages to secure boarding in a very run-down motel, answering to a curt, French-Algerian landlord with a reasonably shifty posse. It first seems peculiar that this man would allow Tom to remain without paying rent at this time (while also withholding his passport), until he gives Tom work. Tom now spends his nights walking crosstown with a small isolated room, where he looks in a surveillance camera observing just one door, which he opens only reserved for those asking for a specific gentleman. Tasked with ritualistically pressing buttons with hardly any human interaction for several hours, Tom’s existential ennui is effectively writ large. Hawke’s brow, not surprisingly, gets quite the exercise.
With the revelation that he has written a guide, Tom also finds himself playing a small literary globe where he meets Margit (Kristen Scott-Thomas). Beautiful, mature, but coiled like a new snake, the boyish Tom on the other hand craves her acceptance instantly, pursuing her as their new muse. Despite her worldly seductiveness, she speaks in banal backstory as well as literary bromides. She wines and dines his / her ego, challenges his creative reservoirs, then bathes and seduces him (Hawke’s hysterical “o-face” may very well be this film’s lasting legacy of music), and it all seems so carefully taken from the narrative that it’s impossible to put any weight behind these types of interactions.
Whether the goal on this film is to area the viewer in Tom’s head is uncertain, though either approach produces questionable results. To assume we’re knee-deep in Tom’s psyche as soon as his bagga- uh, luggage disappears, we’d have to give pause. Of course his dark-skinned landlord will do him a favor as a swap for assisting in quite possibly illegal activities. Of course his neighbor, a heavy-set black man who blares cacophonous gangster rap music at ungodly hours, doesn’t flush when from other shared toilet. Of course his only ally within the “real” world appears to be a young, blond, buxom Polish bartender. Because “civilized” people flirt by discussing literature not, y’know, listening to rap music. If we’re to believe there’s nothing imaginary about this world, well. that’s also a lttle bit off-putting, no?
Hawke is an appealing lead, and Scott-Thomas brings some sort of smoky maturity to your ex performance, but the final act of “The Woman From the Fifth” dissolves into a new tired what-is-reality refraction of the storyline that stunts any kind of potential character drama caused by this premise organically.