Feb 10th: “Frantic” (1988)
Celebrating 28 days of underrated 80s cinematic treasures.
Harrison Ford may have been the most bankable actor in Hollywood history, but in the 80s, even he made films that not many people watched. Movies like Presumed Innocent, The Mosquito Coast didn’t capture the imagination like his earlier, more heroic work. Only the movie Witness comes out with the acclaim, along with appropriate mentions for his role as one of the Jack Ryans, and naturally, being mostly in the background for Working Girl. The 90s saw a revival of Harrison Ford blockbusters beginning with The Fugitive — although Tommy Lee Jones came off pretty well too there. The amazing thing about Ford is that he never has anything to prove. He makes his movie and he moves on.
Frantic came across as a opportunity for him to maintain his role as master of the cat and mouse thriller. Sometimes he’s the cat, and sometimes, he’s the mouse. But he’s never the cheese. Nor is he the trap.
This is a film that begins with the promise of life interrupted. Most likely you will go into Frantic with a foreknowledge of its basic premise: a wife goes missing, and the husband has to find her, comes with the packaging.
The subtlety of the initial drama is mellow, without claws. It’s a slow burn, delivered very much in the tradition of Hitchcock where you are drawn only to details, but you don’t always know why. The shallow, evenly lit, muted pastel tones of the inside settings put you at ease. But things are augmented with specks of colour that catch your eye. Done on purpose, these are the clues that stand out for you to remember: such as the tags on a suitcase or the blue bird on a set of keys. It’s the rouge dress we need to track, on screen, off screen, and in our minds. We become a part of the chaos, and with a fascinating clue solving determination; we are dragged willingly into the criminal underworld of Paris.
For American couple, Doctor Richard Walker (Harrison Ford) and his wife Sondra (relative unknown Betty Buckley) arriving at their Parisian hotel is something of a relief. They are both exhausted and jet lagged. They taking their time, with playful banter, and then, they realise that they picked up the wrong suitcase from the airport. The detail is there, and like trained voyeurs, we are already clued in that something is not right, as Richard Walker is oblivious, washing away the jet lag in the shower. The water seems to erase his wife from the screen, down the plughole, and into the dark, seedy underbelly of Paris society. Sondra has vanished, and slowly but surely, Richard comes to realise that she’s in much more trouble than he could ever realise.
Richard’s investigation of Sondra’s disappearance leads him to Michelle — a young French woman who is mixed in with the social circles of the criminal underground. She’s edgy. She’s colourful, and she ended up with his wife’s suitcase when they got mixed up at the airport so she most definitely is connected to Sondra’s disappearance. Ironically, from that moment on, he cannot let her out of his sight.
Michelle (played by then unknown, Emmanuelle Seigner) is at ease with her Parisian home and acts as though she is the only person living in it. As she doesn’t have her keys to her apartment, it didn’t take much for her climb out of her window, and roof hop up and through her own bathroom window. There are many moments of contradiction, or maybe it is free spirit that allows her to stay with Richard only for as long as she is able to get what she wants.
What they discover is a macguffin, hidden in miniature of the Statue of Liberty — the Paris version, and not the one gifted to the people of American by the people of France.
The cinematic trope of “cleansing” is used a lot in this film. In bathrooms, patrons are seen to use the facilities, but never wash their hands. Richard Walker does. He spends time washing away the grime in a number of different scenes. He is trying his best to stay clean, but it’s others around him that are caking him with dirt. The idea of “cleaning up” returns at the closing moments of the film. It appears in the form of a garbage truck that drives away with everything that Richard Walker no longer needs. Without giving too much away, equilibrium, such as it is, is restored.
The film closes as it had opened: on a road, travelling into the unknown. In a way, this film is a personal revelation about burying the past and moving forward. Polanski knows all too well what that means. He is the villain of Hollywood, carrying accountability for actions that are seen as being unforgivable, and remain unresolved to this day. He is a fugitive to the USA, and that will never be forgotten. No matter how many times he cleanses our senses with new, well-polished visions, the dirt will always cling to him. But regardless of our personal beliefs, Polanski is still able to work and is recognised for his brilliance. Just not by everybody, which is to be expected. Separating his crimes from his craft is hard, and that’s the challenge that we must reckon with.
Frantic was his comeback movie. It’s a well paced, well acted homage to the mystery Hitchcock era. Polanski would follow with strong films like Death and the Maiden, and the devastating and yet beautiful holocaust movie, The Pianist, to which he won an academy award for direction, albeit absent to collect.
It’s a wonder however, that in Frantic, it seems that Polanski is making a symbolic statement throughout about the feelings of his judgement. Contrasting settings from the sterile to the grime. The smuggling of items with a Statue of Liberty, and a final showdown against the backdrop of the Statue of Liberty that graces the river Seine, all of which can be questioned for what they really represent, if in fact they mean anything at all.
Whatever the case. It’s not my decision to make.
It’s your call.
Written by: Stephen Radford