What specific themes were you interested in exploring through this story?
The conflict in a man who’s split between his need for love and family, and his narcissistic urge to create—to use reality for the sake of art. That affects a lot of people, including myself. So it’s something he can’t bring into line. He thinks he’s coming to Paris to repair his relationship and reconnect with his daughter, who he idealizes and addresses [in letters] without actually understanding anything about her. She’s too young, and he projects a lot into her that’s clearly not there. At the same time, he’s got this demon that makes him want to write and transform everything into some kind of mental picture. These tendencies are difficult to reconcile in life: to love and give yourself totally to the other and also live out your creative desires and fantasies.
Tom Ricks is shadowed by violence throughout the film, which seems to have a metaphorical aspect as well. Does that relate to the artistic consciousness you spoke of?
Violence comes out of anxiety, fear of the unknown, feeling vulnerable. Most artistic people are violent in some way, and violence comes out of frustration. I think it comes out of the inability to reconcile things that are pulling you in different directions. Some of the violence is directed against himself—he’s just very angry, I suppose. At the same time, he’s very sweet. That’s one of the reasons I cast Ethan: he’s warm and likable. Not every actor can give you that without having to strain.
Tom inhabits two worlds: one is the well-heeled, pretentious Parisian literary scene, the other is a vaguely criminal netherworld—and he doesn’t belong to either one. He’s a stranger in a strange land, and he’s also a foreigner to himself.
Exactly. He’s a consciousness cut off from its moorings. The world of the salon is shallow and inauthentic, and he’s obviously suffering in that crowd. Nor does he belong in the world where rough realities and material relations are crucial. So he’s completely cut off, and he’s holding onto this idea of love and his daughter, upon whom he projects some kind of idealistic innocence. She keeps him sane but it’s another source of insanity.
There is a correlation between the letters he writes and the dream imagery of a forest, which is almost a mystical place. You focus our attention on the life of that place, the beetles, bugs, spiders.
It’s a kind of fairy tale he used to tell his daughter when she was little about a magical forest. But again it’s ambiguous, because that same forest becomes a scary trap, a bit of a nightmare. Everything in the film works both ways. It becomes a nightmare world full of hostile animals and a feeling of imprisonment.
How personal was this film for you?
I’ve been interested in mental problems for a while. It’s affected my family—and me, personally—so it’s on my mind a lot. That shadow line, how everything can flip into its opposite and love can slide into something that’s a nightmare prison. I wouldn’t deal with these things head on. That’s why it’s interesting to make a film that’s thoroughly metaphorical and has its own poetics, without the histrionics of a film about mental illness. It’s very difficult to make a film about that without the actors letting themselves go, without being narcissistic about it. So I was interested in making something a bit more opaque and resonant of all sorts of things.
Is the film connected to grief that you’ve experienced?
Yeah, definitely in some ways, but I don’t want to sentimentalize it. We all have some emotional core which energizes the whole enterprise, because why else would you make a film? There has to be some demon that propels you, some good emotional reason for doing it. Otherwise, you would spend two years of your life suffering through a technical exercise! [Laughs]
How did you go about creating the different stylized environments that Tom wanders through?
There was a long process of looking at Paris slightly against the grain, not taking it a face value. I was a bit desperate at first because Paris is so self-evident. You look at it and think, What can I do to transform it? You know the texture of it already—the cafés, the creamy buildings. There’s very little contrast or strangeness, unlike London or Prague. So I spent a long time zig-zagging around Paris with my production designer on a Vespa looking for strangeness, like images from Poland in the seventies. [Laughs] Something that was Paris but not Paris, that could work both ways. We took a lot of photos and rearranged them on a table, and then I rewrote the script in terms of what I found. I had a really great production designer, Benoît Barouh, who was tickled by this procedure. He’s one of these production designers who feed off documentary reality, but who love stylizing. I suppose that’s why he was keen to work with me. And then I brought my Polish cameraman, Ryszard Lenczewski, who’s tremendous. I took him to my favorite places and we took some more specific photos and did some tests and started building this slightly abstract world. Sezer’s café was in a derelict building and was practically created from scratch with bits and pieces found around Paris. The idea was to make the café feel naturalistic and real, but abstract at the same time. That’s something I do anyway, so it wasn’t the first time.
You also created very specific color schemes for each of those locations: cool blue tones for Ania’s flat, red saturated tones and sensual lighting for Margit’s, and green-gray hues for Sezer’s place.
Green and red are complementary; we used them in MY SUMMER OF LOVE as well. The world of Sezer and that hotel café was slightly nightmarish and hellish, full of anxiety and some spiritual deprivation as well. Margit’s world’s starts out being cozy, warm, seductive, even maternal. Then it becomes a more hellish environment. It was meant to be a relief after the green world of the café, to enter Margit’s flat. That’s one of the ways we tried to make believeable the fact that Tom’s character would want to go back there.
What did Ethan and Kristin bring to the workshops you conducted that amplified their characters?
They brought emotional intelligence and know-how. We had some dialogues and scenes and just rehearsed. When something felt awkward or inauthentic or cumbersome, we thought, How else can we do it? So I was reinventing the film by means of the actors. We worked on it by elimination—we had attempts at dialogue and little gestures. Sometimes we thought, That’s too concrete, too rich, too real, that’s too much information—it was like a tightrope all the time. How do we find a throughline for her that feels ambiguous, mysterious, but believeable, and with its own energy so you go with it? She is a brilliant actress—I can’t imagine anyone else doing it. I think she enjoyed the role.
Joanna Kulig has done a bit of acting in Poland. How did you find her?
She was in productions for the Slowacki Theater in Krakow, one of the best in Poland, and had done a couple of films, but she’s a relative newcomer. She’s also a singer. I saw her for another project I wrote and was doing casting for, and she struck me as original and talented and fresh. When I was writing this, I generated the character for her, and also as a counterpoint to Margit, because she couldn’t be more of a contrast. They become the two women who pull Ethan in different directions. Joanna’s incredibly musical in her scenes. My way of working with her was trying to give a musical shape to each of her appearances. She waltzes in, pirouettes, then exits. It’s not dialogue-based, but more like a little performance with a beginning, middle, and end. And because there’s very little communication between her and the hero apart from two scenes toward the end, they are like little performances. That method seemed to work quite well.
Samir Guesmi brought a lot of authenticity to the role of Sezer, the café owner. Where did you find him?
I had a fantastic casting director in Paris, Stéphane Batut, who cast his net really wide—I asked him to. Very often in England when you have casting directors, they obsess with the theater, whereas in France they look far and wide, or at least Stéphane did. Samir did a comedy film before this but as soon as he came in, you could see there was interesting energy. He had an amazing face and a kind of plasticity—and a great keenness to learn. I wanted everyone to be expressive. I didn’t want an average face. It was another discovery for me and a great pleasure for me to work with him. He definitely took the character to another level. In fact, all the characters—the policeman, people at the literary party—each one is a little work of art. It gave me real pleasure to make a film where nobody’s just functional. There’s a woman at the literary soirée who talks some nonsense about democracy, and she’s actually a famous intellectual in France, a TV personality whose views are diametrically opposed to what she’s saying. I just planted her in there, and she’s really expressive. I loved that. We were bursting out laughing when she was reading her lines, and there were many other funny moments we didn’t put in the film because it would have unbalanced it all.
There is an underlayer of absurdist humor here and there, whether it’s around Tom’s disgruntled hallmate Omar, or the almost comically Gallic old lawyer Tom consults with about custody rights.
He’s a real lawyer, by the way—but retired, and he had no acting experience! He’s got an amazing face, with a lot of presence. You get those kinds of absurdist nightmare elements in Kafka as well. The actor who plays Omar is a real rapper whose music we actually used in the film. He was quite expressive too. If you give such actors freedom, they come back with good stuff—and then you choose.
THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH draws on different genre elements—psychological thriller, crime drama, romance—without embracing any of them completely. How does that differentiate this film from your two previous fiction features?
I tried to make it without worrying about genre. There’s a guy lost in Paris, there’s a mystery woman, there’s a death, there is love, but the whole film was like a shot in the dark. The idea was, let’s give it its own momentum and not worry about genre signifiers. And that was scary because then you rely on the audience to be generous and watch it properly. But it’s also exciting because I’m so bored with watching films where I know what the game is immediately. If the film has its own poetics and seems to make sense, though we don’t quite know how, I like that. It’s what I want to see. As for my previous films, they all sit in kind of abstract environments, though they had a clear, naturalistic logic. As much as I can, I try to remove them from the here and now. They were happening in a three-dimensional world, instead of five dimensions. [Laughs] So this was different. Here there’s a strange mechanism, not love. I tried to create a slightly hypnotic atmosphere at the beginning. Some people will go on that journey with me and others will not, sticking to naturalistic expectations.
Were there any source inspirations apart from the book?
I grew up in a certain type of cinema, so I’m steeped in a certain tradition—I love Polanski in the ’60s, David Lynch, the Coen brothers. But I realized, when I thought of films like these, that they were too broad or too weird. There wasn’t one film that became a point of reference at all.
The film has a true multi-national character: the actors speak Polish, French, and English, and the story of the film itself, about an American in Paris, is another gesture of cultural hybridity.
Well, what you want to avoid, because of production funds coming from different countries, is what they call the “Euro-pudding.” You know, I am a cultural hybrid myself: I’m Polish but I’ve lived abroad most of my life, since I was 14. I’ve never made a film in Poland. I spent a lot of time in Paris and somebody like Tom Ricks seems familiar to me. I totally relate to him. I selected materials which felt right for the film, and right for this world, but were also familiar to me. Nothing about the film is exotic to me. Nowadays Europe is pretty cohesive anyway. I speak French, so switching between languages is no big deal—it’s what I do anyway. I’d love to be making films in my backyard in Iran or Argentina, like others. But I live in some no man’s land between cultures—that’s my backyard.
How does your background in documentary inform what you do as a narrative filmmaker?
When I was making documentaries, everyone was telling me, “Your images are so peculiar and stylized, you should be making fiction features.” That’s a misnomer—what they really meant is that there’s a particular world in my documentaries. I didn’t just record what’s out there in a verité manner. They were quite stylized and carefully edited and they have this slightly abstract quality, even though they deal with reality and quite dramatic situations. There was always a tendency toward the metaphorical and imagistic. What they gave me was a sense of freedom and the confidence to follow my nose. If something doesn’t feel real or expressive, let’s do something about it quickly. They gave me the courage and desire to sculpt things differently, to not be so formulaic and think on my feet, to make sure there’s life on screen—and some kind of poetry.