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Ethan Hawke cooly steers the crazy train in The Woman of the Fifth

The first film from emigré director Pawel Pawlikowski since 2004's dreamy My Summer of Love, this thoroughly odd and brooding psycho-puzzle trains in on Ethan Hawke's displaced American writer-academic, arrived in Paris to see his ex-wife and young daughter despite a restraining order, a recent hospital stay and a history of violence. Behind his thick-lensed Buddy Hollys and air of vague disconnection, the man seems oblivious to his situation, which just grows more dire once he's robbed of his luggage and must take an off-the-books job video-monitoring a dope den's entrance just to pay for a hovel above a cafe. Pawlikowski is peerless at contemporary fish-out-of-water discomfiture (à la 2000's Last Resort), and visually his style is a hypnotic cataract of offbeat compositions, luminous light studies and abrupt-cut naturalism. But The Woman of the Fifth's story seems to jump its ghostly rails with the mysterious introduction of Kristin Scott-Thomas as an elliptical lover-muse who provides Hawke's lost boy with sanctuary and support. That is, until we begin getting the sense that a healthy but undetermined slice of the film, maybe including an off-screen murder, is actually unspooling in the hero's frazzled head. You're not sure what this is till it's over, but certainly Hawke's performance is his nerviest and most sincere in a decade.

 
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