With the BAFTA-winning Last Resort and My Summer of Love under his belt, Paweł Pawlikowski is maybe the most talented Polish director you’ve never heard of.
His new film The Woman in the Fifth is set in his new home Paris. It’s a sullen, minatory noir starring Ethan Hawke as Tom Ricks, a depressed American writer hanging in the balance of the Parisian underworld and flirting with the boho socialites of the Rive Gauche, where he meets the ludicrously sensual Kristin Scott Thomas.
With a dreamlike, Polanski-esque intensity, Pawlikowski has returned the noir icons of the damaged loner and the femme fatale to their native home, knowingly aping the look and feel of the New Wave with a strange, ghostly grace. He tells i-D how he did it…
You moved from London to Paris – where The Woman in the Fifth is set – a few years back. How does the film culture differ over the channel? France has a coherent, hermetic and self-supporting system, and that means it’s protected. The cinemas are full in Paris and French people watch French films. But British films must justify themselves much more, because there isn’t a cinema scene that takes itself for granted here. That’s why you have these endless policy reviews and agonising think pieces and sudden moments of glory. “British cinema is coming,” I read. No-one would dream of writing “French cinema is coming,” in Paris. It’s there, and it does not need accolades.
Did you write The Woman in the Fifth with Ethan Hawke in mind? I saw Ethan Hawke in a Sam Mendes play at The Old Vic. Ethan is very authentic. There’s something intense and troubled and fiercely intelligent about him, but he’s also very genuine. He’s a writer as well, so he knows that space. I thought of him very quickly as the right guy. He’s an actor with great technique, but he has a lot of nerves. He could have become a leading man and worked in big movies, but he wants to respect himself. He’s genuinely an honest, searching, interesting guy. He wants to discover, he writes a lot. I think he saw Hollywood glamour early on and shied away from it. I’m sure sometimes he thinks “Christ, I could be at the Oscars right now,” but most of the time he’s happy in his own skin.
You’ve avoided the limelight in a similar way. Would you recommend it? Sometimes it’s difficult to do that in this current climate when mass appeal is everything and commercial success is not a dirty phrase in cinema. I grew up in the seventies so for me it’s a bit of a nightmare what’s going on right now. If you keep your nerve, you’ll be fine.
Ethan Hawke’s experience of Paris is defined by two very different women, Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Ania (Joanna Kulig)… Margit is multi-layered and so ambiguous, like an inquisitive critic from hell. She is nothing she seems to be, whereas Ania is a kind of antidote or counterweight to that. She is fully there. She’s not ambiguous at all, and she doesn’t read subtexts into anything. I don’t know whether either character would exist in real life, but Tom has these two women who look different, who feel different, who are pulling him in different directions. Both are not quite naturalistic, as if they’re part of the same dream.
There’s a glimpse of The Eiffel Tower in the background of a shot, you chose not to use establishing shots or sweeping panoramas in this film. Why was that? It’s partly because it’s not so interesting to shoot, and partly because I wanted the viewer to be with Tom the hero, who has a very limited, unbalanced angle on reality. I played a lot with the idea that he has bad eyesight, which allowed me to play with depth of focus. After the first version of the script I start to look for locations, but not necessarily locations that trans-literate what is in the script. I spent months on my scooter travelling around Paris and looking for places that somehow make a scene more than what I wrote, that are expressive as well as authentic. Nothing and nobody is quite real in this film, except the hero. I didn’t want Paris to feel like a place, but a state of mind.
The Woman in the Fifth is out in cinemas today…
Text: Tom Seymour