Monday, October 29, 2012

Director Spotlight #11.12: Roman Polanski's Frantic

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. October’s director is master thriller/horror filmmaker Roman Polanski.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 64 (B)

Roman Polanski had put all of his time and energy into Pirates, his first film in seven years, and all he got was a $6 million dollar gross against a $40 million budget, not to mention scathing reviews. With several years in exile and an expensive bomb on his hands, he needed to keep working if he wanted to save his career. It’s no surprise, then, that his next project, 1988’s Frantic, is easily the most straightforward entry in his filmography, missing almost all of the nasty, surreal touches that made his best films simmer. But just because it never truly amazes doesn’t make it a bad film by any means.

Dr. Richard Walker (Harrison Ford) has traveled to Paris for a medical conference. Accompanied by his wife Sondra (Betty Buckley of Carrie), he’s jet-lagged and disoriented as he reaches his hotel room. Sondra realizes that she picked up the wrong suitcase at the airport when her key will not open the bag. Soon, while Richard is in the shower, Sondra disappears from the room. Richard searches for her until a man tells him that Sondra was forced into a car outside a cafĂ©. Richard takes this information to the Parisian police and the U.S. Embassy, but neither seem particularly sympathetic. Richard then takes the investigation into his own hands and connects his wife’s kidnapping to a murder, a young smuggler named Michelle (Emmanuelle Seigner), and a plot for a nuclear weapon.

It’s a pretty pale imitation of a classic Hitchcockian plot, complete with one of the lamer macguffins of the period. The film isn’t helped by some fairly unmemorable villains, nor by Seigner’s weak performance. The role of Michelle calls for someone with a punk-like energy, but Polanski’s future wife mostly just poses and pouts. But what likely makes the film so exasperating to some Polanski fans is its pedestrian exploration of Polanski’s pet themes: the sexuality never connects, nor does the power play considering the weak villains, and the ending plays like a pale imitation of Chinatown (whose writer, Robert Towne, did some uncredited rewrites on Polanski and Gerard Brach’s script). One might doubt whether or not this is a Polanski film at all.

One wouldn’t be looking hard enough. True, it’s fairly weak on a thematic level, and Seigner’s performance isn’t the strong female lead the film needs. But Polanski gets strong work out of Ford as an increasingly exasperated man dealing with ineffectual bureaucracies (including a wonderfully condescending John Mahoney) and a jet-lag that just won’t quit. Polanski matches Ford with a slow-burning tension and haze that hangs over Paris. When a bleary-eyed Ford first notices his wife is missing, Polanski takes his time establishing that something is terribly wrong. Polanski also pulls of some dynamite set-pieces, particularly one involving Ford trying to avoid being seen or heard on Seigner’s rooftop. It’s all elegantly, subtly wrought, tense, and well-acted by the lead. It just doesn’t feel like much more than a transitional film for a director who really needed a respectable film ASAP.

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