Movie Review: Frank & Lola (2016)

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In writer-director Matthew Ross’ feature filmmaking debut about a middle-aged Las Vegas chef's obsessive relationship with a recent college grad (played by Imogen Poots), Michael Shannon plunges headfirst into a psychosexual Noir fueled by male jealousy and old school notions of revenge.

Driven by its performances, although at times it feels like an atmospheric update of In a Lonely Place written for a Last Tango in Paris era Marlon Brando, it's Shannon whose eerily calm, controlled rage beneath the surface reigns the film in whenever it begins to spiral off course.

Quickly establishing the rocky, self-conscious start to their relationship and the 747 size baggage both Shannon's Frank and Poots’ world-weary Lola carry everywhere, Ross paints a picture of budding love as much as pain.

Amid the Michael Mann like backdrop of the lights of Las Vegas in the film's opening bedroom scene, Ross heavily foreshadows the turbulence ahead with a moment that starts out romantically but gets dark fast both in not only a startling first sexual request by Lola but especially just how quickly Frank is ready to fulfill it.

A chronicle of the push and pull between truth, deception, and confession, the film wears its Franco-American influences proudly on the screen as Frank journeys to France under the guise of a professional opportunity.

However, like the omelette he makes for Lola early on which hides caviar beneath the surface, behind Frank's professional exterior is a furious masquerade of Travis Bickle like proportions as he uncovers more about his cryptic lover’s past.

Voyaging deep into the heart of darkness of Frank’s sexual jealousy (obviously a recurring theme in Neo Noir that is on steroids here), the sense that his quest is less Arthurian and more ego driven becomes increasingly palpable.

For all of its modern day frank — no pun intended — sexuality and a few straight out of Hollywood plot contrivances, the film's gender stereotypical roles of man as either vengeful tormentor or protector of a woman's sexuality is as outdated as it is inescapably authentic as the worst and best sides of Frank, played throughout with equal abandon by Shannon.

He looks and walks and speaks with purpose. In a tense scene where he meets a man from Lola's past, you know he wants him gone in the worst way, deep down more for having existed before him in her life than anything else.

We know those guys. We've met those guys. Maybe those guys exist in all of us and Frank can no longer suppress their influence or maybe it was there before he even arrived in Vegas.

And after the narrative surrounding Lola's past changes once again — or appears to as the story is told to him by a man vs. a woman — Ross infuses the film with flashes of Othello like hatred. Opting to believe not his own true love but a male stranger he's just met instead, the implications of Frank's self-loathing, misogyny, inadequacy, and mistrust are never fully explored to the level required for it to really pay off the way that it should.

Yet while Shannon is potent enough as an actor to hide the film's flaws (at least for a little while) and still make you want to know more, with Ross uncertain where to go from there in his script, Frank & Lola begins to lose its hold on us as a result.

Sadly, despite her perceived origins as a variation on Lolita (which come out of the shadows as the film continues on into its second act), the supporting character of Lola isn't nearly as complex as not just Nabokov's enigma but Shannon's Madonna-Whore obsessed lead as well.

No stranger to making underwritten women sing, the underutilized Poots adds an extra layer to her scenes. Punctuating a word or a beat with a certain look in her eye, she makes you understand just how and why so many men have fallen under her spell, even if none of them — and Lola most of all — know precisely who she is from one moment to the next.

Squandering some of its earlier potential in a meandering midsection, Frank & Lola alienates viewers whenever Frank trades Vegas for France as we feel as though we've wandered away from a dark romance and straight into a foreign, erotic B-movie version of Eyes Wide Shut.

Thankfully however, it manages to right itself in time for its pitch perfect ending. Using mirrored surfaces brilliantly to reinforce the idea that these two people — like anyone in love — long to be seen, here Ross is smart enough to know that in the end, their reflections depend on the secrets and lies hiding behind even the best of intentions in their lover's eyes.

Anchored by the unexpected chemistry of Shannon and Poots, this flawed if worthwhile character study of sexual jealousy features a tour-de-force performance from Shannon, which will make you question just what more it will take for A-list filmmakers to make him their leading man at last.

Ultimately more successful for its ideas and the dream of what might have been with a stronger narrative arc, in its intoxicating blend of old and new Noir, just like Lola fascinates Frank, Frank & Lola is sure to do the same for viewers eager to see what writer-director Matthew Ross will do next.

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