There’s a bewitching and intensely intoxicating quality to the opening act of “Frank & Lola,” a seductive, romantic noir turned psychosexual drama from assured first-time feature director Matthew M. Ross. The movie immediately and effortlessly taps into a sensual moodiness — the nervous and excited feeling of early intimacy, coupled with the anxiety of rejection and the fear of losing something exhilarating. And while “Frank & Lola” never quite recaptures the nascent electricity and tension — transforming into something much more dark, paranoiac, and tortured — the impact of the first act’s tremulous emotions and haunting scenes are so lasting, the withdrawal bedevils everything that follows.
While falling head over heels in love overpowers and overwhelms, it can be a scarily destabilizing experience. Fear of getting hurt feels all too real a possibility for Frank (Michael Shannon), a talented but brooding and jealous chef, and Lola (Imogen Poots), a gorgeous but flighty aspiring fashion designer. The older Frank is never quite sure if he’s good enough for the young angelic beauty he adores, and Lola, while loving, seems dangerously enigmatic with an air of restlessness around her.
Set in the lonely and superficial milieu of Las Vegas — perhaps the perfect setting to foster emotional insecurity — the gun-shy Frank and the tentative Lola delicately dance around one another; each instantly in love and perhaps just as equally terrified by the prospect of drowning in one other. And tellingly, at the end of every enamored gaze, there’s an additional, unspoken glance that seems to speak to vulnerability and mistrust.
Lola’s too-flirtatious, but rich and well-connected boss (Justin Long) only fuels Frank’s searing apprehension, but also lends him job opportunities he could never otherwise afford. It’s a delicate relationship; it’s clear both of these people have been wounded in the past and the frailties of it all soon crumble as an old lover, Alan (Michael Nyqvist), reenters Lola’s life briefly. She confesses a sin to Frank, and it all implodes, but not before Lola tells him about Alan’s gaslighting manipulations and past sexual abuses.
Offered a trip to France to cook for a famed Parisian restaurateur, Frank accepts the gig mostly as a way to stalk Alan and get to the truth of Lola’s stories. Or even potentially something worse. Of course, nothing, not even her allegations, are quite as straightforward as it seems and deeper layers of deceit, mistrust, and deception begin to cloud an already inscrutable woman and a relationship that was perhaps never built to last.
If the atmospheric push and pull tensions of “Frank And Lola” are palpable and pitch perfectly drawn at first, the drama admittedly loses a lot of steam when it morphs into a psychosexual thriller and mystery that examines the fallout and uglier side of love from only a male perspective.
Frank’s self-destructive wild goose chase to Paris strains suspension of disbelief and the focus on betrayal, deception, and revenge borders on being an entirely different movie. Ross has such an extreme affinity for expressing the fragilities of intimacy and the heartbreak often tied to exposing our vulnerabilities, one wonders why so many Brian DePalma-like plot machinations interrupt such a terrifically crafted movie.
There is a point, ultimately, in collecting all the truths, the fictions and fabrications and how they stack up, but they’re never quite as convincing as the two damaged lovers trying to navigate past their misgivings. As misjudged as the second half of “Frank & Lola” feels, the engrossing opening intrigues the viewer into finding out how it all turns out even as it jettisons Lola's equally-interesting point of view in favor of Frank's.
Plus, there’s plenty of reasons to stick around, chief among them being the cast and the terrific quivering chemistry between Shannon and Poots. Shannon smolders in the picture and Poots' raw-nerve bruising feels so real you can understand being instantly smitten and yet terrified of what she’s capable of making you do.
The supporting cast of Emmanuelle Devos and Rosanna Arquette, plus the film's evocative aesthetics, also go a long way in keeping the viewer absorbed. DP Eric Koretz’s expressive neon-night cinematography lends “Frank & Lola” its ghostly, sad tenor and superstar indie composers Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans (who have four Sundance film scores in the 2016 line-up include this one), underscore the melancholic movie with jazzy airs of regret, bittersweetness and longing.
As uneven as the psychodrama can be at times, one thing is clear, Ross is a major talent worth watching. He’s got an eye, a strong p.o.v., and the movie has many perceptive observations about the self-destructive perils of possessiveness, ownership, and holding on too tight. Ross’ movie comments on the hazards of ruinous desire and the picture invites the viewer to question whether the romantically damaged and mortally wounded can ever love properly. And wisely, it’s not an inquiry he cares to answer outright. A dark and tortured expression of love, jealousy and loss, “Frank & Lola” at least ends with one more captivating thought: whether our instincts for self-preservation and flight can overpower our feelings to put our faith in potentially damaged goods one last time. [B]