Frantic May 22, 2016
You know you’re watching the film of a cinematic master when done-to-death material suddenly seems unfamiliar. If in the hands of another filmmaker, 1988’s Frantic would be your average kidnapping thriller, verging on the tedious. But as it’s directed and co-written by Roman Polanski, an auteur whose aesthetic peculiarities have made him one of the most intriguing cinematic artists of his generation, déjà vu proves to be the least of our worries. When faced with Polanski’s black humor and jumpy visual style, Frantic goes from would-be blockbuster to avant garde thriller of the Diva (1981) brand. The results, though tonally uneven in totality, are eccentrically spellbinding.
Harrison Ford headlines as Richard Walker, a San Francisco-based doctor in Paris to give a lecture at a medical conference. His wife Sondra (Betty Buckley) in tow, we get the sense that neither are much interested in the conference itself. As they spent their honeymoon in the City of Lights some 20 years earlier, more appealing to them is the opportunity to enjoy each other’s company in the place their love became more concrete than ever.
But as is the case in most (if all) by-the-numbers thrillers, things go awry merely hours after initially arrive. Sondra’s suitcase is nowhere to be found; there was a mix-up at the airport, it seems, and she ended up with someone else's luggage. She laughs it off, charmingly accusing her husband of attempting to give her an excuse to shop for expensive French clothes. But moments later, while Richard washes off the long journey in the shower, Sondra all but vanishes into thin air. Something tells us the mix-up and her disappearance correlate.
Richard is suspicious, too. Authorities, however, don’t match in his concern. While they allow him to go through the motions of filing a missing persons report, they’re under the impression that Sondra must be off somewhere in France with a lover Richard didn’t know anything about. But he knows his wife — their marriage is as strong as it’s ever been — and such claims are hardly fitting. To his irritation, he’s forced to leave the law behind and undergo an investigation of his own, where leads, somehow, are abundant. Richard gets even closer to solving the mystery when he meets Michelle (a cool Emmanuelle Seigner), a young drug courier who has Sondra’s bag. She wants her payment just as much as Richard wants his wife back.
So one could say that Frantic is one long whodunit with hints of the chase film, though its cockeyed assemblage makes it seem distant from its more mainstream peers. Polanski only has to do small things to achieve its lopsided effect, from the way Grace Jones’s “I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango)” plays repetitively (not as non-diegetic sound, either) to Polanski’s insistence that most of Richard’s leads be odd figures themselves.
Inversions of normality in an otherwise predictable genre are what make Frantic the playfully suspenseful work that it is — if only its ending, reminiscent of the conclusion of Chinatown (1974), matched the overall mood of the piece. With everything so darkly humorous, fatalism isn’t much suitable. Still, the film finds Polanski at his most skilled. B+