|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 01 June 2004|
First of all, "Frantic" isn't. The title suggests, clearly, a frenetic, pell-mell pace, but the film delivers a slow, careful buildup to a moderately-paced climax. It's consistently interesting -- you keep watching -- but it's not as exciting or suspenseful as the Alfred Hitchcock thrillers that were obviously its model. Director Roman Polanski has always been best at internal suspense, rather than external, and the latter is what we have here. (Notice that in "Chinatown," "Rosemary's Baby" and his other best films, what happens is not as important as the characters' attitudes toward the events.) Nonetheless, in its own quiet way, "Frantic" builds up a good deal of tension by the time of its climax beside the Seine. This is one of the few suspense movies that probably works better on home video than in theaters.
Harrison Ford is excellent as American doctor Richard Walker, returning to Paris with his wife Sondra (Betty Buckley) some twenty years after their honeymoon there. He's attending a medical convention, and she's along for a vacation. They're well-to-do, and are safely ensconced in a luxurious hotel -- when Sondra simply vanishes while Richard is taking a shower.
Some will think that at this point, Polanski and his long-time friend and co-writer Ge'rard Brach (who appears in the film) make a significant error. They show us each slow step Richard takes as he tries all the official ways of seeking his missing wife; most of the officials he talks to assume that she has gone off on a romantic adventure. If you're expecting a fast-paced action thriller, as the title might suggest, these scenes could make you justifiably impatient. However, Polanski and Brach are trying to show us how this decent, law-abiding man gradually loses patience with the "proper" way of doing things, and how each patronizing smile increases his impatience and anxiety. We don't become frantic -- but finally Richard Walker does.
However, there is one aspect of this wait-and-watch approach that can drive you to distraction. There was a luggage mixup on the airline, and Sondra had ended up with someone else's suitcase. We knew this; Richard knew this. It takes him so long to realize the luggage mixup might have something to do with Sondra's disappearance, and to rip the other suitcase open and examine its contents that it's maddening. In a Hitchcock film, we might have seen Richard taking all the proper steps in a swift, ironic montage, returning to the room and the mysterious suitcase within seven or eight minutes after Sondra disappeared. Because that's really where the story starts.
And once it does, "Frantic" becomes far more entertaining, especially with the arrival on scene of Michelle (Emmanuelle Seigner), the leather-clad, night-life-loving young woman to whom the mysterious suitcase belonged. She was smuggling in something, she didn't know what, and clearly that's what the various factions are after. Richard gets her at-first reluctant cooperation, and later she helps him because she's both attracted to him and touched by his obvious deep love for his wife. (There's never really a hint of a romance between Richard and Michelle.) As they team up, not only does the pace of the movie pick up, but it starts becoming surprisingly funny, and builds to a nicely tragic climax, triggered by the greed that Michelle just cannot shed.
Michelle is the most interesting creation in the film. Half-child, half-woman, half-sophisticated, half-naive, she's drawn to Richard because she has a warm heart, but it has a glaze of ice; several times she gets them both into trouble by demanding the payment for smuggling she feels she deserves. Polanski knows Parisian nightlife and those who live it well, and it's clearly brought out in this amusing, touching character. Seigner is also a promising actress, and very attractive as well. She's since gone on to stardom, and a romance with Polanski.
The photography by Witold Sobocinski is mostly in pearly gray tones; there doesn't seem to be a blue sky anywhere in the film, and the parts of Paris we see are far removed from the usual tourist haunts. We see very little of the standard tourist sights; the Opera is visible from the Walker's hotel room, and at the end, the Eiffel Tower can be seen in the background of a couple of shots. But that's because it's hard not to include the Eiffel Tower in the background of scenes shot in Paris. Replicas of the Statue of Liberty play important roles in the story, symbolic of several things at once. There's also an emphasis on the garbage trucks that putter around Paris in pre-dawn hours. (I don't think I have seen any other film that has so many scenes set at dawn.)
One of the amusing touches early in the film is that Dr. Walker is fairly well lost without his wife. She takes care of his appointments and in general manages things for him. After she vanishes, he never changes his clothes again, and keeps none of his appointments (granted, he has more important things to worry about than a medical convention). Walker is brave not because it's in his nature, but because his devotion to his wife drives him to heroic actions. He has one goal only, to get his wife back (we learn early on that she was indeed kidnapped), and nothing else matters to him. Ford usually plays someone who's after something, but never before had he seemed so single-minded. He was in very much this same mode in "The Fugitive" a few years later.
But there is something lacking in "Frantic," a fault that's hard to pin down. It's as if Polanski and Brach assembled a script from a kit, rather than made a story they were devoted to; there's a lack of personal involvement at all points. It's a respectable piece of work, but it's as involving or exciting as intended; it's a good film, not the outstanding thriller it might have been.
As with too many of the early DVD releases, the Warner disc of "Frantic" lacks any extras at all, and is not letterboxed. I hope it doesn't take Polanski's death for a respectable DVD collection of his films to be released.