There is a pleasingly refreshing edge to the way the central relationship in Frank & Lola (2016) is portrayed. Thrusting us into the middle of their lives together (quite literally in a revealing opening bedroom scene), writer-director Matthew Ross leaves us to deduce what we can from their moments onscreen together, making us play catch-up while he instead focuses on impressive themes of desire, obsession, betrayal and revenge, and how these all affect the couple further down the line. That their obvious age difference is never explained or criticised further cements this as a bold take on the modern romance. Daring as it is though, you can’t help but feel dissatisfied by it all, a film that feels like it scratches the surface of Ross’s complex ideas rather than giving them the full due they’re worth.
It all starts promisingly too, Ross unravelling the titular couple’s loving and caring relationship against a seedy, neon-streaked Las Vegas background that foreshadows things to come. Sure enough while all between them seems rosy, Frank (Michael Shannon) becomes increasingly worried about her slipping away, especially when a flirty young businessman (Justin Long) is suddenly promising her help with her fashion career. And when Lola (Imogen Poots) returns home one night tearful and full of remorse, secrets soon turn into bigger secrets and a chain reaction is set off that can’t be taken back. It is here that Ross reveals the greater and unexpected story up his sleeve, which turns out to be one third drama, another third revenge thriller, and lastly an impressive film noir. However it is also around this halfway mark that the overall narrative steadily loses steam, particularly when the transatlantic-hopping plot becomes disorientating and frustratingly underdeveloped, a plot that feels like it’s just getting started before Ross ties it up neatly and slaps a (genuinely) sentimental bow on it.
The noir elements throughout are actually one of the films saving graces, Eric Koretz’s gorgeous cinematography giving Vegas an odd yet artificial beauty that hides a whole shady world of sex and other more sordid behaviours. This is a sentiment that crosses over later in the film to the Parisian streets, as Frank is invited there to be interviewed for the role of head chef at a new restaurant. It’s an intriguing juxtaposition that Ross carries off brilliantly, and which shows how Frank can’t escape the scum of the earth no matter where he goes. Speaking of, while in Paris Frank meets Alan, another smarmy male with too much money on his hands and who is played with delicious creepiness by Michael Nyqvist. It is in these moments that Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’s affecting noirish score shines through as well, both of them building the tension to nail-biting levels as Frank and Alan face off against each other.
While Ross’s choice of genre certainly helps to construct a fascinating platform for his story to take place, it is really the turns from both leads that holds our interest throughout. Both Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots sizzle onscreen, perfectly convincing as this unlikely yet loving couple – another reason we never question why they happen to be together. Poots excels as the mysterious Lola, her gentle smile and unwavering eyes hinting at a wealth of secrets beneath her surface. However it is Shannon who truly impresses here, dominating his role with a quiet intensity and drawing you in with his daunting height and kind yet terrifying glower. His Frank increasingly becomes a coiled snake ready to strike at any moment, his knuckles white but his stony face hiding his true dark thoughts. It is his performance that also makes the later vengeance angle that Ross explores all the more convincing, and truly gripping too.
Hear the words ‘psychosexual noir thriller’ and your mind will likely conjure up images of Basic Instinct (1992), Fatal Attraction (1987) and Body Heat (1981). While Frank & Lola certainly has a lot to owe to those, this is a refreshing look at the genre, Ross taking the usual themes and exploring them in a modern and thought-provoking way. While all this is admirable though, Frank & Lola leaves much to be desired, the journey Ross takes to get to his ideas often an uphill struggle. You can’t help but feel deflated in the end, especially when it seems like so much has been left unsaid, both by the two main characters and by Ross himself. Still, it’s hard to dislike a film that took Ross ten years to make – a film so full of passion that it translates to the screen throughout. I only hope that he takes that dedication into his next film, and makes something truly worth raving about.
Frank & Lola suffers from a plot that loses momentum, yet it is still an interesting curio made all the more watchable by some phenomenal performances.