Published Sep 19, 2011Given director Pawel Pawlikowski's propensity for gravitating to stories and characters where people are duplicitous and motivated by signifiers not directly present in the surface narrative, it's not surprising that his depiction of the titular Douglas Kennedy novel deliberately avoids explanation and contextualization on a variety of plot points, making oblique what was explicit on the page.
The general story is similar, with American professor and novelist Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke) coming to Paris to see his daughter, but here there is an unspoken, potentially violent rationale for his estranged wife to call the police when Tom shows up on her doorstep. It's something hinted at and indirectly explained in the final act, but specified clarity never comes.
What remain the same are the seediness and unglamorous nature of Paris, where Tom is robbed and left to stay in a dive hotel, where he has to share a washroom with a man that refuses to flush. Left without money, he accepts a job monitoring a locked door via surveillance, letting in those that utter the correct phrase when prompted. Again, this is never expanded upon beyond curiosity, leaving us to expect the worst, much like Tom's relationship with a mysterious older muse (Kristin Scott Thomas), who invites him over for sex only at specific times.
With frequent images of insects crawling along various coarse surfaces, making sinister and unsettling the constant unknown, Pawlikowski builds his drama with daunting precision, only to defy expectations and the narrative reality just when we're expecting a standard climax to resolve every loose end, providing catharsis.
The oblique and arty, almost anticlimactic nature of this sinister look at Paris and our surface assumptions may frustrate many viewers, but few could argue that there wasn't something to consider or contemplate walking out of the theatre.
It's also nice to see Ethan Hawke play subdued in relation to Kristin Scott Thomas's almost ironic vibrancy. (Mongrel Media)