by ETHAN PETERSON
Frank & Lola
dir. Matthew Ross
There was a Times article a few years ago about the apartment Michael Shannon rented in Red Hook with his wife and daughter. It reminded me of that MTV Cribs episode that visited Redman’s home in Staten Island. Not because Shannon lived in any kind of squalor – just that the reporter found a lot more than she bargained for, and did not even know it. Shannon went on for a while about how much he hated claustrophic spaces, and compared himself to the main character in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. He sounded like a very wild person.
Then again, Michael has the propensity to talk a lot – the actor’s bizarre rant against elderly Trump voters was relatively unsurprising. No two people could be more dissimilar than Michael Shannon and Donald Trump. The mercurially talented Shannon is a complete chameleon, whereas the president-elect can only ever be one thing.
Or maybe that is the wrong spirit animal. Recently, as he enters middle age, Shannon has started to look more and more feline. In Frank & Lola, the brilliant directorial debut from Brooklyn resident Matthew Ross, Shannon has no careful costume to obscure the fact that his head is a great deal larger than his torso, an aspect of all large cats. Even though he is not a very large man, Ross is the first director to insist that Shannon loom massively in the frame, like a smudge you cannot wipe off. As Frank, a Las Vegas-based chef, Shannon even throws in a New York accent.
Frank meets Lola (Imogen Poots) and in short order she has his name tattoed just above her waistline. He is intrigued at this level of devotion, but soon it seems like merely a lever on him. Shannon does not have much in the way of chemistry with Poots, but it is sort of the point that these two are not exactly right for each other. Sensing Frank’s underlying anger and self-hatred, Lola explains that she was raped by a European man she knew. Upon learning of this tale, Frank barely considers his girlfriend for the rest of the movie except in the context of being a victim.
Normally, this would make for a very dark turn, but Shannon is able to save us from that, too. Ross makes a point of deepening our understanding about Frank through knowledge of what he does for a living. Frank and Lola depicts the confusion some of us have with food: whether it should serve merely as basic nourishment or as a component of some cosmic reassurance depending on how thoroughly we enjoy making or consuming it.
As Frank cooks for people he barely likes or respects, Ross weaves a light allegory of writing for more well-known but less talented people than himself. It is sort of shocking how jaded Hollywood has made him at the tender age of forty, and the same is true of Mr. Shannon, who sometimes throws parties for his daughter Sylvia. She and her friends like to watch movies on the projector.
Frank & Lola was originally set in Brooklyn. This makes a lot more sense because both protagonists seem relatively alien to Las Vegas, and we never get a real sense of the city as a place to live in. (The only reason Ross moved the film west was financial.) Frank is way too innocent for Las Vegas, but his basic gullibility is just right for Brooklyn, where a tragic possessiveness is as natural as water. Ultimately I felt Poots was the weak link here, mainly through no fault of her own. In one key scene she appears entirely in reflection, and we get a basic sense of how slight she is. Her meandering, mealy-mouthed way of speaking is right at home in other roles, but it is hard to imagine Frank being captured by it: he craves refinement, both stylistic and physical.
Cannily, Ross displays Poots topless in the first scene of Frank & Lola, as if to give us a basic functioning reason for Frank’s desire. He refuses to penetrate her on a first date, so they settle on cunnilingus. She asks him, while he has his mouth on her, to hold her down, and he cannot help but crack some kind of joke about this. The moment quickly gives over to pleasure, and this elasticity of feeling is devastating.
Frank takes a number of trips to Paris where he meets up with Lola’s rapist. Ross plays these scenes very carefully, relying on the possibility of violence and rage versus the presence of either. It would be easy and therapeutic to watch Frank enact vengeance, but Ross is telling a much more sensitive story. Denying us catharsis is so risky, especially in a debut, but Ross’ devotion to how he sees these characters approaches the devout. He wants to know exactly how they do a thing at the moment they are called to do it.
Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.