Wednesday, October 26, 2011
I've Seen That Face Before
One thing’s for sure, if the power goes out unexpectedly that really does put a crimp in your plans. It’s happened in my neighborhood twice recently, within a few days of each other, once on Sunday and then again on Wednesday, lasting well into the evening on a night that I had planned to just stay home and not do much of anything. It was hot. There was little point in sitting there in the dark and I had no idea how long it was going to be. So I drove off from the neighborhood, grabbed an In-n-Out Burger in Hollywood and then cruised around in the night for a little while with the TRON: LEGACY score playing. I stopped off at the Grove for a few minutes to look around, Julia Roberts walked by me at one point, I did a double take when I realized it was Julia Roberts, then I headed down the street from there to the New Beverly to see Roman Polanski’s 1988 thriller FRANTIC. I’d seen it before. Actually, I’d seen it many times before including on a cold opening night in February at Yonkers Movieland way back in those dark ages. The New Bev was showing it as second on the bill after the recent French action movie POINT BLANK (no relation to the Boorman--when it comes on DVD check it out, you’ll like it) and though it had crossed my mind to go simply to see FRANTIC again it was honestly low on the priority list. So it’s fortunate that the power went. The reaction I had to the film couldn’t have thrilled me more.
I remember loving FRANTIC when I first saw it all those years ago—even then there was something about how the film just laid out its thriller plotline in a perfectly logical fashion that I responded to even though I had yet to fully discover Polanski at that point. As time went on I began to make those discoveries and pay more attention to films like REPULSION and CHINATOWN which made me curious to revisit FRANTIC after a number of years away from it. So there I was at the New Beverly seeing it again in a theater after all these years in a print that probably dated from ’88 with noticeable scratches near the reel changes and I was absolutely knocked out by how it reminded me, in all seriousness, that I actually kind of love this film. There was something about it that reminded me of the undeniable charge of true cinema that I felt in Yonkers all those years ago. You can grow, you can change, you can see films that expand your boundaries of what films you might be interested in but ultimately you are what you are. It may not be top tier Polanski—considering what it’s up against, I’m not sure it could be—but I’d gladly call it one of his most underrated. Because of its box office failure at the time and maybe due to being lumped in with every other ‘Harrison Ford’s family gets kidnapped’ movie that’s been made since it’s become more than a little forgotten, which is a shame. This is Polanski, damn it. And you can feel what the director is bringing to the movie in every frame, in every tiny gesture that characters make. It’s funny how I’m saying it’s underrated because since this screening I’ve spoken to several people including a few who where also there and when I tried to describe my reaction each one of them have replied, “Yeah, I know. It’s great.” Maybe I just know the right people. Maybe I just know the only people who would agree with me. I say it’s that good.
Dr. Richard Walker (Harrison Ford) arrives in Paris in the early morning hours with wife Sondra (Betty Buckley) to attend a medical convention. The arrive at their hotel exhausted from their long flight, looking forward to a few hours of alone time before Richard has to prepare his speech when Sondra realizes that she accidentally took the wrong bag at the airport. Richard makes a call to deal with this and all seems normal but just a short time later after he’s dozed off Sondra, last seen going down to the lobby, has disappeared. Richard isn’t sure what has happened but with the management of the hotel, the Paris police and even the American Embassy only able to do so much, he follows what few leads he can trace beginning with that mysterious suitcase collected by mistake. He starts to believe that it must have something to do with his wife’s disappearance and the trail soon leads him to the beautiful and mysterious Michelle (Emmanuelle Seigner) who has recently been involved in smuggling and may be the only person who can help him find out what happened to Sondra.
The argument could be made that on the surface FRANTIC, written by Polanski & longtime collaborator Gerard Brach with uncredited work by Robert Towne, is almost too simplistic of a concept for Polanski, one without the twisty views of reality which can sometimes be found in his best work. And while the basic setup seems like it could play as much more normal than it actually does (some of the DNA can certainly be found in this year’s Liam Neeson vehicle UNKNOWN but let’s not make any comparisons beyond that) from the first frame FRANTIC feels totally like Polanski, playing out as much of a pure examination of behavior as anything. It’s not all that much of a stretch to look at some of this film, with a lead character from the Bay Area who I assume has a 60s-lefty background but is now politically apathetic, as the director expressing some of his own feelings about America, a place he had purposefully removed himself from a decade earlier due to his infamous legal troubles (and that’s all I’ll say about that here) with a certain an arch, yet undeniably yearning, quality to the way a certain Statue of Liberty souvenir figures into the plot, in addition to the views of the famous replica on the river Seine first seen upside down in a point of view shot. In some ways you could even call the film a very dry comedy—no one has ever made drier comedy than Roman Polanski, after all—as it observes a man desperately fighting sleep in a city where almost no one speaks his language and even the ones who do never seem to listen to him.
“Do you know where you are?” Richard Walker’s wife Sondra asks him as they’re driving in from the airport to Paris. “No, it’s changed too much,” he replies, in reference to the last time they visited the city on their honeymoon some twenty-odd years before. Settling in after the provocative sounds of Ennio Morricone’s off-kilter score combining synths and horns with a deliberate French feel to its main title theme I found myself locked in with FRANTIC immediately, while at the same time being somewhat astonished on this revisit by the sheer quiet of its opening scenes. Very little happens at all for the first ten minutes or so beyond the Walkers checking into their hotel and discussing how their day is going to go. Everything is laid out with a methodical deliberateness, from the flat tire their first taxi gets to the procedure to taking their passports out as they check in to simply ordering some breakfast. Polanski pays more attention to this behavior than few other directors do, I suspect than few other directors ever could. It would never happen this way today—hell, it could never happen this way today, no studio would allow it—but it feels absolutely essential for the film to take effect to somehow find yourself in Richard Walker’s shoes, uncertain what to do, who to talk to or what to possibly do next since for all the reasons having to do with the realities of their own lives they react to him with simple officiousness if not outright dismissal, with every single thing happening paid attention to so we’re constantly on guard, in some ways turning the film into a depiction of the basic indifference of the world. The point of view remains strict—we know something when he knows it so for a time we’re about as clueless about what’s going on as Walker, who for a while has to deal with people who pretty much believe that this is a simple case of marital strife. And what else can they do anyway?
As some of the pieces begin to come together for Walker with the vision that is Seigner’s Michelle joining up for her own reasons the expected Hitchcockian tropes begin to emerge along with the McGuffin he’s been looking for (which, incidentally, may have more meaning in the real world now than it did then). Even the grey suit Harrison Ford wears could be another Hitchcock nod what with its resemblance to the one Cary Grant forever has on in NORTH BY NORTHWEST and it feels just as much a part of his identity. But the point could very well be made that there isn’t any one great setpiece in the Hitchcock style, it’s more a case of the various elements steadily accumulating piece by piece, forever building to a fever pitch (the great editor Sam O’Steen no doubt deserves as much credit as Polanski and the other writers do) and even if Richard Walker is never seen to be behaving in a manner that could be, well, frantic, the tension ratchets up so tight that I don’t really care. So much of it works, whether it’s the way certain shots are held for prolonged periods of time, how moments that seem like they might be important get diffused or just the false leads that turn up, particularly a scene in a nightclub which features a small touch of drug use by a certain movie star that I doubt would be allowed today. The rhythm to all this feels masterful aided by the sheer logic behind the plotting combined with the veritable daze the character finds himself in, making a treacherous and unwise excursion out on to Michelle’s roof to gain access to her apartment without thinking about what he’s doing. When he almost loses his grip the ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ look on Ford’s face seems absolutely perfect in the moment.
And there’s a certain nightclub scene involving Walker and Michelle, a place where he believes will lead them to the next step towards finding Sondra. Michelle puts Grace Jones singing “I’ve Seen That Face Before” on, the umpteenth time we’ve heard the song in the film, she leads him out onto the dance floor and basically slinks all over him in full view of everyone else there. Walker in his jetlag daze doesn’t seem to know how to respond to this vision, this substitute for his wife who is falling all over him and it becomes hypnotic how the film just stops dead for the moment. In his review Roger Ebert weirdly referred to it as “…a dance sequence in a nightclub that continues until it is inexplicable.” Come on, Roger! Hell, isn’t this scene one of the reasons that movies were invented to begin with? Of course, just staring at Seigner fall all over him on that dance floor is enough of a reason for it to continue as anything. But since we’re on this subject, I’m still a little hazy on the angle of all this playing as a sort of idealized vision of an American middle-aged man going off to Paris from a life that’s become staid, like that bracelet of Sondra’s that doesn’t close very well anymore, trading his wife in for a younger model who attaches herself to him almost immediately, one red dress for another, forever in search of what he’s lost. With the sound of Grace Jones continually warbling “I’ve Seen That Face Before” heard through scenes it all seems like a noir-tinged view of the world anyway and maybe FRANTIC is about the things you encounter in life being forgotten by everyone else while you’re left there, alone with your memories of what haunts you. Polanski has certainly learned of how indifferent the world can be to horrible things that happen. But life goes on, just like the circularity accentuated in the haunting Ennio Morricone score. Business still has to be transacted. Beautiful women are killed. Trash gets picked up. The Eiffel Tower still stands.
Just a few years after WITNESS and still somewhat adventurous in the projects he was choosing, this remains one of Harrison Ford’s best performances and his work here is just as underappreciated as the film itself is. Some of the tics we’ve all gotten used to are there, present an accounted for (The Finger does make an appearance), but there’s an energy to it, he feels totally engaged with a palpable intensity down to how his hand shakes as he tries to fast forward on that tape message he’s having the concierge translate. When he asks, “Where’s my wife?” to someone on the phone at a key moment the desperation couldn’t feel more honest and it feels as if he’s working with his director more than usual to achieve the proper effect along with some surprising bursts of humor from his personality as well. Considering how glum his screen persona would become only a few short years later this film and his supporting role in Mike Nichols’ WORKING GIRL later this year are just about the last glimpse of the Han Solo-early Indiana Jones we know and love. In some ways, FRANTIC is the ideal fusion of the screen presence he developed in the early part of his career (even Richard Walker coming from San Francisco feels like a connection to his early Lucas/Coppola days) with an obvious look ahead to the “My family’s been kidnapped!” joke of the latter part of his career. FRANTIC was not a box office hit but while it isn’t really any sort of career turning point—Pakula’s PRESUMED INNOCENT, which did just fine two years later, isn’t as interesting but it’s not at all bad—it maybe could be seen as a rare case of a director trying to push him beyond his comfort zone and the actor totally willing to go along with the challenge.
Always looking up to Ford with those big eyes and maintaining the right balance of innocence and determination, Seigner’s work here may very well be a product of direction by somebody infatuated with her (I’m not sure I could blame him—she and Polanski have been married since 1989) but nevertheless she’s fascinating to watch with all of her unspoken glances at Harrison Ford—when she’s hanging from a rooftop, legs dangling straight down she doesn’t even seem all that concerned as if she knows that this American doctor who’s suddenly entered her life would never drop her. The likes of Betty Buckley and John Mahoney as an embassy official don’t have much screen time but the work of everyone down to the smallest roles is strong and adds to the tension—the now familiar Dominique Pinon is a wino with a key piece of information and particularly good is Gerald Klein as a sympathetic hotel concierge.
The power had long since been turned back on by the time that I arrived home late that night but all I could think about was the giddy cinematic high I was on, the kind I wish happened more often. FRANTIC remains an underappreciated film. There was never even a decent release on DVD, just a full-frame job from Warner which doesn’t do Polanski’s intricate compositional sense any favors and the Blu-ray, presumably an improvement, shares its disc with PRESUMED INNOCENT. Makes sense, I suppose, but still a shame that it has to be thought of as ‘just’ another Harrison Ford thriller and compared with the versions of this sort of thing that get made today (well, I did mention UNKNOWN earlier) it’s practically an art film in comparison. No, it doesn’t rank as high as certain other Polanski films but how many films really do, anyway? I may never fully understand why I responded to it the way I did way back then, but I don’t really care. All I know is that I was reminded of what that felt like in a way that was completely unexpected. Maybe seeing FRANTIC when I was younger was a step towards my understanding why films like this directed by somebody like Roman Polanski were ultimately going to mean something to me and what that was going to do for my love of film. And maybe I love it all the more now because of that.