Monday, September 23, 2013

Frantic (1988)

fran·tic (adj.)
1. Highly excited with strong emotion or frustration; frenzied: frantic with worry.
2. Characterized by rapid and disordered or nervous activity: made a frantic last-minute search for the lost key.
3. Archaic Mad; insane.

That's how  the Free Dictionary defines the title that Roman Polanski gave to his exciting thriller, and it got it all correct. There is a certain unpleasant incident/situation that makes Dr Richard Walker -played by a Harrison Ford who seems to be in his thirties, but is in his early forties instead- frantic in every possible sense; he is definitely frustrated, very emotional, making nervous/random efforts to re-establish order and he is taken for mentally ill for his efforts, not only by the police, but also by other people in his entourage.

The story goes like this: Dr Richard Walker, an American doctor arrives in Paris for a certain professional convention with his wife, expecting to have a second honeymoon of sorts. Having left their children back home, they expect some thrill for a change, to forget their peaceful  (read mundane) life, but not a thrill of this kind. They hardly had a relaxing shower in their hotel room (a reference to the shower scene we will never forget, hail Hitchcock), and Mr Walker realizes that Mrs Walker has gone missing. Nobody wants to take him seriously, but he is certain his wife knows no one in town and she would never leave without letting him know first.

The only clueless clue he has to build upon is a white suitcase, in fact the wrong white suitcase, which his wife picked by mistake in the airport, instead of her own. He opens it up and finds a matchbox with a phone number on it and a pairing key ring, both featuring the Blue Parrot (see poster), an underground  bar where the "white lady" is hiding. Dr Walker perseveres, until he manages to get a link to the owner of the wrong suitcase; and here comes the fun, where an American doctor insists on close collaboration with young and ultimately mysterious and attractive Parisian girl (Emmanuelle Seigner, still brunette and very very slim, check that: "Miss Seigner does what she's supposed to do, which is stop traffic." from a New York Times review at the time of the films release) in finding his beloved wife (Betty Buckley), who seems to have twice his age (ok, I exaggerate, but you get the point) and looks rather icy (vs the fiery Seigner) in her ways.

For me, that was the most admirable underlying concept of the whole film: Dr Walker's persistence, despite all the mess and in spite of the allure and open admiration the French temptress showed him, to find his wife and take the Arab secret agents story to a closure. And when the exchange is being made, a wife  for a state-of-the-art explosion device, it's only then that we see that one cannot have both: not only a detonator, but also a fragile girl still wearing the last night's red dress to gain undercover access to the interested parties is in trade for a lost, now found, beloved wife. A wife that is wearing a similar red dress. Is it a moment of relief, or the moment that fantasy expires? Love wins and leaves temptation aside, Dr Walker and Polanski himself (?) teach us in the least conservative fashion.

Suspense, beautiful, at times nightmarish surroundings (it's Paris by night, after all), great soundtrack by Ennio Morricone and Grace Jones coming back in every single crucial moment with her Libertango (I've seen that face before). Of course, smart mise-en-scene by a gifted Roman Polanski -who knows very well the meaning of the world "temptress" and it nearly cost him his freedom at a certain point. Frantic (1988) is a film I've been trying to watch for over five years, but, ow well, some thriller-like events in my life held me back. I finally managed, and you should do the same.

* I have to thank Spencer Alley from here, for making available online the Polish poster of the film.

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