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The adventures of an American in Paris, so often cast in a romantic glow in the movies, is reframed as a nightmare with erotic overtones in Pawel Pawlikowski’s sinister thriller The Woman in the Fifth. In the Polish filmmaker’s first film since his acclaimed 2004 coming-of-age drama My Summer of Love, Ethan Hawke plays Tom Ricks, a writer who travels to the City of Light to try to put his life back together and reunite with his estranged wife and young daughter. Things don’t go according to plan and after he’s robbed and left destitute, he is trapped is Paris, living a bleak existence until he meets Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas), a beautiful woman who injects some light into his life – at least that’s the way it appears at first.

At the Toronto International Film Festival where Women in the Fifth made its world premiere, Hawke and his director sat down to discuss some of the implications of a film in which things are rarely what they seem.

Q: Kristin Scott Thomas plays your lover, but at times she almost seems like your mother in some of her interactions with you, Ethan. Once that becomes apparent, then it’s easy to start reassessing Tom’s relationships with all of the women in the film. How did you keep all of the female roles straight in your head, who they were representing and who they actually were?

EH: We struggled a little bit with the title of the movie. Part of the reason why, I think, is because there’s this kind of knee-jerk thought that Kristin is the “woman in the Fifth,” and part of me started thinking that it’s more true that there are these five women: his daughter, his ex-wife, his Polish lover, Kristin and I don’t know who else.

PP: That’s four!

EH: (Laughing) Then himself! He’s the woman in the Fifth, the woman inside him. The point is that they are all these different ways of accessing aspects of himself, who we are to different people. The movie works as this kind of weird, lyrical dance of symbols, anyway. They are all something that is not exactly real. It’s a very difficult thing to verbalize, because as soon as you verbalize it, you kind of box it in.

Q: Pawel, you made a point of staying away from the more familiar landmarks of Paris, except for the Eiffel Tower, but even that is never seen full on. At one point, a chunk of it looms so close outside an apartment window that it could be an adornment in the backyard and then at times we see only the tip of it. Also, there is the visual style where everything in a scene is out of focus except for a focal point.

PP: We wanted to limit the vision of the viewer, because the hero’s vision is kind of limited. We gave Ethan these very thick glasses.

EH: I couldn’t see a thing. The movie looks the way it looks when I was doing it. I couldn’t see anything, then it would be, wow, really big!

PP: It’s a key, metaphorical, but also a literal key to the performance. He doesn’t see in depth. He sees something. He identities one thing and then doesn’t notice the layers and layers behind it. He doesn’t notice some obvious things, because he’s in his head. When you’re in your head, you only notice some things that strike you at the time.

Also, I wanted Paris to be slightly unreal. I’ve seen so many films set in Paris and I had no idea how to do it interestingly. When I went there, I kind of despaired, because I love Paris, but it’s so full of itself, it’s so obviously Paris at ever step, in every direction. It took ages to figure it out. The secret was to find strange little places in Paris that don’t look like Paris. I was looking at places that rang a bell for me, that looked like Eastern Europe from the ’70s or something.

Q: Getting back to Margit, she comes across as lover, mother and muse, a dream figure brought to life, but that’s how an outside observer sees her. How does Tom see her?

EH: It’s kind of amazing to me, as much as a symbol as you feel Kristin is, when she’s sitting there, kind of glowing and ripe asking me to come up the stairway, it’s so beautiful. When she takes him up to the roof and sings him that song, it’s some kind of other metaphor that I’m not sure – it’s not really realism either. It’s like, “What? Who says that?”

Q: He’s so lonely and she’s offering him –

EH: – some kind of solace. He is so alone. And she offers him some understanding and someone to talk poetry with, who’s read his book and says she knows him completely. I love how she says, “It’s so you,” the book. She doesn’t even know him. It’s the kind of thing people say.

PP: She’s fantasizing about him already.

EH: It’s just like women I used to date who would say, “This is just like Before Sunrise!” No, it’s not, actually. – Pam Grady