The Polish director discusses dismantling the American in Paris tradition in his new film The Woman in the Fifth.
Ever since his delicate British drama My Summer of Love was met with critical acclaim and a BAFTA win in 2004, Polish writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski has been notably absent from our cinema screens. Seven years on, he's back with The Woman in the Fifth, an unsettling character study centred on a troubled writer (Ethan Hawke) and his increasingly surreal experiences in Paris. LWLies sat down with Pawlikowski recently to discuss mental breakdowns on screen, and dismantling the American in Paris tradition.
LWLies: You've mentioned in the past that with adaptations, you prefer to use the source material more as a starting point than anything prescriptive. Was that your approach here?
Pawlikowski: Yeah, at first the producer sent it to me and it wasn't my kind of thing, it was a proper thriller with bodies and police and stuff. But I was struggling with another script that I was trying to finish at the time about mental illness, which was a much more naturalistic kind of film. So I thought actually, this could be a more interesting way of making a film about mental illness. It's more roundabout, more playful and strange and metaphorical. And it'll be an interesting kind of experiment to start from one thing, and turn it into something completely different. So yeah, I said 'Okay, but you don't mind if we stand everything on its head', and make it not about a guy who falls into these complicated intrigues, but about a guy who is actually the problem. And they said yeah, okay, if it works it works. I thought it would make a great part for a good male actor, and Ethan Hawke was immediately the kind of actor I had in mind.
The device of the unreliable protagonist is a very literary one, was that a challenge to do on screen?
Yeah, it was, and who knows whether it works? I think some will love it, others can't get into it. I just wanted to make a film that I hadn't seen before, and when I met Ethan he had read the novel and said 'I'm not sure, it's just not my kind of thing', but I said yeah, let's make a different film about this guy who's kind of falling apart, and let's make a film that doesn't entirely make sense. I'm sick of films that always make sense, you know, where we know what the genre is and within the first fifteen minutes you know how it might go. Let's make a film that has its own kind of strange logic, that defies all sorts of categorisation. And he got very excited about that.
Tom's character, and the idea that all isn't quite right with him, is revealed very slowly, there's no 'aha!' moment of revelation...
No, there's no reassuring moment, because you keep asking yourself right up to the end and after the film finishes. Which is okay, that was the decision.
Did you ever consider a version in which it's revealed earlier, or more definitely?
No, because all the time I was trying to make it like a kind of tightrope, you know, not to reveal too much, but to keep it kind of tense and interesting and it was a balancing act, how much information to feed through. And once we got to the end of the line, it was still kind of in balance. That was the idea, not to have a three-part structure with twists and explanations.
Margit is if anything even more of an enigma – how did you describe the character to Kristin Scott Thomas?
It's a cloud of things. It's not a usual world where you have back story and motives. She basically is there and not there, and there's a hint of a femme fatale, of a mother – both a warm and welcoming mother and a castrating mother – there's a hint of a literary critic, both generous and understanding and a nasty one, there's a hint of death, there's a hint of everything about her. There's a kind of cloud of associations, which is very unusual in drama and not many actors would have been able to work from that. But it was a kind of dance with her, shaping it in rehearsals and in the filming, not from inside but from outside. Usually with an actor you work from inside, from the motivation, the through line, whereas because Margit wasn't entirely of flesh and blood, it was more like a musical piece. It was like making a sculpture with her. But it was difficult, she had to be really confident in her own capacities to let herself go there. Whereas with Ethan it was the opposite, he was completely in character, he knew his trajectory from beginning to end, he knew everything about his past, and he was totally inside the role.
There are a lot of instances where characters discuss their nationality, or in Margit's case their lack of it. Was national identity something you consciously focused on?
I don't think I was thinking about it too much, but it's a territory I'm constantly involved with, and inhabiting. I'm Polish, my late wife was Russian, I now live in Britain but Paris mainly, so I'm kind of in between cultures. For me it's not an issue, that kind of multilingual stuff. So I didn't think about these lines too much, it just kind of happened. But an American in Paris is such a common thing, it's almost too obvious, but then we dismantle it.
Although the geography of Paris is evoked in the title, the setting almost doesn't matter because Tom's so alienated from his surroundings.
No, he's got a very limited vision and we're kind of in his head. It's a Paris perceived by a troubled guy, and also a guy with not very good eyesight, so he focuses on what he focuses on. He only picks out certain things at a certain distance. We used a lot of slightly longer lenses than usual, so the focus wasn't very big, you kind of feel all the time slightly like we're not getting the whole picture, that possibly there's something very important to see which you don't see, just round the corner, or further away, that's out of focus. So that was very much part of the visual approach.
As much as the film's about Tom's mental illness, there's never a sense that you're diagnosing him.
No, because we're in his head. You've had enough films where you observe a mad person that's falling apart from outside, and it's relatively boring to observe, the behaviour becomes monotonous after a while. But if you get into somebody's head – which is impossible, but just for argument's sake – that could be much more interesting. And so that's what happens here. I didn't ever give [his illness] a technical name, I wasn't being scientific about it, and at times because it's shot in a not particularly dreamlike way, that was the exciting challenge. To hint that it's all possibly kind of happening in his head, it's shot quite concretely, but at the same time there's something strange going on. But at no point did I think 'oh, well this is a sign of something', it was more like trying to spin a film out of one idea and then just seeing where it takes you, and to have a film that doesn't transliterate any other kind of thing, that's not there to illustrate a theory about madness, nor is it an adaptation of a book with its mechanics, it's a film that has its own kind of strange logic. That was the fun part.
There's a line of Margit's where she essentially says that in order to be a writer, you have to pay a price, and only once you've got a broken life can you write something really good.
It's horrible but it's true! Most writers have had some kind of key event or key disaster in their life – not all. I don't mean genre writers, but say Dostoevsky or Kafka, there's always something that kind of shifted the reality out of joint, and opened things up for them to write about.
Tom has some sort of troubled past with his wife that’s introduced early on but isn’t ever fully explained.
But she's scared of him. And also there's a line saying that there's an exclusion order on him, and he says 'oh I've got been in hospital for a while'. So there are hints that he was in a hospital, and that there's an exclusion order on him, so you can assume that there's something possibly violent, and something to do with mental health in his past.
You said Ethan was very much in character, did he talk to you about what his ideas were for Tom's backstory?
Yeah, he didn't invent them, they were there. But he talked with me a lot, because he's a very bright guy, he's really, he writes novels himself, he wrote two novels and I think he's on his third. So he's really in tune with the character and with the whole idea of a guy who lives in his imagination, who suffers from writer's cramp and he can't write anything because nothing happens in his life and he just can't get over a hurdle. It was kind of familiar territory to him. And there's lots of other things that felt familiar, but I won't go into them!