Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Film Appreciation - Cherchez la femme

Our Film Appreciation series continues as Jay Burleson discusses the 1988 Roman Polanski/Harrison Ford thriller Frantic.

"Do you know where you are?"
"No, it's changed too much."

Frantic (1988)
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Gerard Brach and Roman Polanski
Stars Harrison Ford, Emmanuelle Seigner, Betty Buckley, and John Mahoney

Dr. Richard Walker and his wife Sondra are in Paris on business, but when Sondra disappears from their hotel room, it's up to Dr. Walker to track her down. After getting a less than warm welcome from the U.S. Embassy, Walker sets out on his own journey to rescue his wife, but stumbles into the underbelly of crime and corruption in the Paris city streets.

Roman Polanski's Frantic is, in my opinion, the directors most overlooked work. While most of the titles on his resume through the '80s and '90s are never mentioned in the same category as Chinatown ('74) or The Pianist (2002), Frantic strikes the perfect balance of all things Polanski and has an unmistakable charm that even some of his more accomplished films could use more of. While it is by no means on the same level as the aforementioned films in terms of overall execution or perhaps even quality, it manages to do the trick for me, and is definitely not far back on my list of favorite Polanski films.

The story opens on a fast paced Paris highway as Dr. Walker (played by a much more bumbling Harrison Ford than in his Indiana Jones/Han Solo days) and his wife Sondra (Betty Buckley, perfect as the counterpart to Emmanuelle's Seigner's character) travel to their hotel. Their trip seems doomed from the start, or at least from the part we pick up on, as the taxi cab has a flat tire. When they finally do arrive at the hotel, they realize that Sondra picked up the wrong bag at the airport. Dr. Walker retires to the shower, and once he comes out he finds that his wife has gone missing. Walker begins searching for her and reaching out to the hotel officials, local police, and even the U.S. Embassy in order to find her. All of this develops with the traditional Polanski pace, we are with Walker for all of his awkward encounters that seem to be going nowhere. He can't speak French, he doesn't understand the locals as they banter around him, no one seems to be taking the man seriously. A bar patron tells Walker that his friends saw a woman being forced into a car, and the doctor finds Sondra's bracelet in this location. A hotel clerk says that he saw his wife leave with a man and that the man had his arm around her. When Walker explains to the gentlemen at the U.S. Embassy (one of them played by John Mahoney of Frasier fame) that this man could have had a gun pointed at his wife as he escorted her out, they say that perhaps, "They were just having a good time."

From here on out, Walker takes things into his own hands. He searches through the mistaken luggage bag and finds an odd assortment of things including a mini Statue of Liberty and a pack of matches with a nightclub logo on the front and the contact information for someone named "DeDe" inside. Out of desperation, Dr. Walker heads to the nightclub in search of this DeDe character. This leads to Walker sniffing cocaine with a man who promised him that he can help him find "the white lady" but Walker is at least able to get the location of "DeDe" from this man. However when he arrives at DeDe's apartment, he finds the man dead, and from here on out, it's twist after twist as Walker teams up with Michelle (played adorably by Emmanuelle Seigner) one of DeDe's employees, and a bit of a firecracker herself. The plot begins to center around the mix-up at the airport and something very important being inside the Liberty statue that Walker is now in possession of.

The film's charm, which I previously mentioned, seems to play off some 1960s vibe. While it may not be intentional, I do find it quite noticeable. Dr. Walker and his wife are from San Francisco, the drug dealer at the club sings, "If you go to San Francisco, be sure to wear a flower in your hair!", plus Michelle and Walker begin traveling around town in a 1960s VW Bug with peace stickers on the hood. As far as charm goes, Seigner is full of it, playing the type of female character that I never get tired of seeing in any type of film. She's edgy but naive and easy to love. Her character owns a Garfield telephone, which is perfectly 80s, and when she sees the line is dead she remarks that the bill hasn't been paid. "My roommate... Bitch!"

It's also wonderful to watch Harrison Ford bumble around (quite literally) as Dr. Walker, considering I grew up watching Ford as the cooler than cool Han Solo and the legendary Indiana Jones. Whether he's falling down a flight of stairs with Seigner or nearly falling off an apartment roof, it's quite enjoyable to see and feels very realistic considering Walker is a simple doctor from San Francisco.

Collaborations and Connections

The film is edited by long time Polanski collaborator, Sam O'Steen, who also edited two other Polanski films: Rosemary's Baby & Chinatown. Interestingly enough, O'Steen also edited the 1973 film The Day of the Dolphin, a film Polanski was originally set to direct. O'Steen also directed a few titles throughout the years as well, including the little known 1976 made-for-TV film, Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby. Gerard Brach, a longtime collaborator of Polanski, helped pen the script. This would be Brach and Polanski's next-to-last collaboration, teaming up again only on the 1992 film, Bitter Moon. Seigner and Polanski married in 1989 and they are still together today. They have two children. The music is provided by Ennio Morricone, who supplied the scores from pictures ranging from "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" to "The Untouchables".

Frantic, like most of Polanski's work, is something I only discovered a few years ago. To me it's a very nostalgic movie though, and is a true piece of old school cinema in the sense that it's the type of mystery/detective story that has been told many times before but never seems to get old, and these type of stories definitely don't get told the way Polanski does it. The pairing of a male character with a female character that know nothing about each other but must work together is always an attractive pairing in my eyes, and Seigner and Ford work perfectly together. If you haven't seen this film and you enjoy a well worked pace and some 80s nostalgia (mixed with a weird 60s vibe) then you should seriously check this one out.

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