Viva Las Vegas: Sexual Violence and Neo-Noir Merge in “Frank & Lola”

frank-and-lola-hi-res1

Directed and Written by: Matthew Ross
Starring: Michael Shannon, Imogen Poots, Justin Long, Michael Nyqvist, Rosanna Arquette, Emmanuelle Devos
Produced by: Lars Knudsen, Jay Van Hoy, John Baker, Christopher Ramirez
Executive Produced by: Robert Halmi Jr., David Hinojosa, Kevin Iwashina, Jim Reeve, Christine Vachon
Music by: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
Cinematography by: Eric Koretz
Edited by: Jennifer Lilly, Rebecca Rodriguez, Matthew C. Hart
Official Selection of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival

*****

“There’s a thousand pretty women waitin’ out there
And they’re all livin’ the devil-may-care
And I’m just the devil with love to spare”

*****

The famously seedy underbelly of Las Vegas has emerged as one of the most overused landscapes of contemporary film, and the excitement of seeing the neon skyline has long dimmed for me. Probably the best use of it in my lifetime was in Knocked Up, when the characters played by Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen decide to take psilocybin ‘shrooms to the sounds of Britney Spears’s “Toxic”. I’ve grown sick of the disreputable depictions of Vegas, not only for its visual redundancy in movies and television, but also because I’ve known many people from there whose experiences were quaint, suburban, and tame. In fact, I was an extra in the series finale of the erstwhile CBS drama Vegas – so you can understand that it is a distinct and personal pleasure to see the Nevadan city in a more respectable light in Frank & Lola.

This feature debut from writer/director Matthew Ross is a tight neo-noir that clocks in just under 90 minutes, a really perfect length. Its central mystery, however, is not a murder; what Frank, a high-end chef and restaurateur played by our lord and savior Michael Shannon, must discover is whether or not his lover, Lola, is a sex victim, a sociopathic adulterer, or both. As portrayed by Imogen Poots (on a roll in 2016 with Green Room, Popstar, and Knight of Cups), Lola is effortlessly seductive yet strangely unhinged. She is caught cheating on Frank in the early stages of a hot-and-heavy love affair; and she claims to have been recently “fucked-up” by Alan (Michael Nyqvist), a Parisian aristocrat who raped her and is now housing her mother (Rosanna Arquette, in a brief scene.) Yet when Frank – whose existence gives Shannon another chance to display his infinite well of inner anger, wide eyes aflame – jets between Paris and Vegas under the auspices of a major new job interview, he discovers holes in Lola’s distressing story. Was Lola forced to have sex with Alan, or did Alan and his strip-club-friendly wife (Emmanuelle Devos, sultry and mischievous) bring Lola into their scandalous little world consensually?

Ross and his team show undeniable style, with Comet cinematographer Eric Koretz doing especially lovely, low-key work in the Vegas-set scenes. With canted angles straight out of a John Huston film, Koretz balances Drive-like neon lighting with an affection for medium-long shots that expose modern Vegas’s grand interior designs. And Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi, the John Ratzenbergers of Sundance movie composers, spin some unsettling synth tunes without ever diving into obnoxiously suspenseful fiddle-playing.

Lola is positioned as a potential femme fatale at first, drawing her two lovers toward one another in a jet-setting cycle of competitive, animalistic violence; but her revelations to Frank appear to wrack her with pain. Her anguish is too great to be typical of the black widow seductress trope, suggesting that this movie is after something much more important than fusing The Maltese Falcon with Requiem for a Dream. While Alan writes Lola’s anguish off as “very convincing,” – and this is a testament to Poots’s tragic performance – we are made to feel that her feeling of violation is actually real, even if the sex acts involved were somehow agreed upon. So in love with Lola is Frank that amidst some suspicious behavior with a coworker (Justin Long, strangely great), he remains unable to reconcile himself to the nasty Alan, who veers from threatening to mutually respectful to downright friendly as they wrestle over Lola.

In an interview with Scott Macaulay of Filmmaker Magazine, Ross explained the exhausting trajectory that this film has followed on its way to production and release. In January, it had its World Premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, but it went way under-the-radar in the months before Universal gave it a limited theatrical release. This is a shame not only because the actors are well-directed (doubly important with Michael Shannon getting strong acclaim for his role in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals) and the neo-noir mechanics impressively knotted up, but also because the middle of 2016 would have been the perfect time for Frank & Lola‘s release. For at the center of Ross’s fiction script, which he based in part on the real-life assault of an acquaintance, are the seeds of a necessary conversation about what constitutes veracity – and what stops our society, its men in particular, from accepting truths – in the rape claims of women.

Many of my readers’ minds inevitably turn to two highly public sexual assault situations in the American zeitgeist: the ever-growing list of rape and harassment perpetrated by Bill Cosby; and the comments leaked in October by President-Elect Donald Trump claiming that, as a star, he is entitled to “grab [women] by the pussy” at will. Those like me, perhaps, will also recall the recent allegation by Dylan Farrow that her father, Woody Allen, raped her as a child. The group-think mentality appears to be that with more than fifty accusers, Cosby’s legacy has been eviscerated and his prospects of avoiding prison time (or death of a heart-attack) dim with each rejected appeal. Yet Trump, who is also accused of multiple sex crimes (including against a minor), was elected President a month after his egregious infraction against common decency became public knowledge thanks to a conversation with Billy Bush. And Allen, it is well known and widely discussed, continues to make film after film without any real interruption from either the law or from his collaborators in Hollywood.

While Ross could not have anticipated the relevance of his script to the frightening current social climate, this film beggars the reopening of an essential conversation. Just yesterday, January 11th, the GOP began the process of dismantling the ACA, with specific care paid to protections for women’s health. How would Frank & Lola have played out if Poots’s character had indeed been raped, but had been unable to receive physical or psychological health treatment for her suffering? And what if Lola had been impregnated? These questions undergird Ross’s script, intentionally or not, and provide a window into a time where such questions had real answers for Lola: 2016. In the year since it premiered at Sundance, Frank & Lola has since had a limited theatrical run in Los Angeles and New York, and will undoubtedly find its way onto video demand. I recommend you watch it before this new year ends, if only to keep the dialogue on sexual assault somewhat open in a society whose leaders wish to shutter it.

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