Many films that fall under the neo-noir label typically share a handful of similarities to the classic ‘40s genre, whether it's a femme fatale or twisted, misanthropic conditions that get the flawed hero in trouble, without aligning exactly with all of its nuances, characteristics and pursuits. Writer/director Matthew Ross experiments with the threshold separating neo-noir and a straight-up version of modern noir in Frank and Lola, a contemporary thriller that tangles together an older chef and a younger fashion-designer in an unlikely romantic tryst, one that grows more complicated, naturally, upon discoveries about the girl's past. Ross' artfully-composed emphasis on the couple's unique, evolving relationship -- and the performances from Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots -- creates some richly observant and emotive suspense at first, but the rickety moving parts of the film's actual thrills distract from the substantive twists and flips on noir trappings that it explores later on.
Frank and Lola never shows us a point where Frank (Shannon), a prestigious and "classically trained" chef in between stations in Las Vegas, and Lola (Poots), a recent design school graduate also searching for work in the town, aren't an item. The film begins with them in bed, immediately revealing the rapport that exists between them despite their difference in age, ensuring that there's something more substantial stirring there than mere idiosyncratic attraction. Those nuances take shape in their interactions throughout the city, ready to be interrupted by their desires professions, which happens once Lola starts to make the rounds with professionals like Keith (Justin Long), a local gallery owner and collection curator. A wave of suspicion and jealously creates a rift between the lovers, exacerbated by the things that Frank learns about his young lover and her prior ties to Paris. By chance, Frank receives the opportunity to travel there on business, opening the door for him to investigate what Lola has divulged to him.
With visual and emotive lyricism reminiscent of the works of Wong Kar-Wai, Frank and Lola thrives in its initial depiction of this mismatched couple's attraction, exploring the dynamics of their age difference without directly stressing or exploiting the fact. A dinner with Lola's mother (accentuated by a lush cameo from Rosanna Arquette), conversations in empty bars, and low-boiling disagreements in their shared living space offer a glimpse into how their bond functions, revealing that they both possess dominant and submissive traits which keep each other in check. Michael Shannon bring Frank to life with his traditionally standoffish charm, a hardened disposition that naturally lends itself to the character's later misgivings and jealousy. Imogen Poots gracefully realizes within Lola the glances and cherishing allure of someone more mature (and weathered) than their years suggests, someone whose attitude belies her age until interrupted by her naivete and objective world experience. The peculiar chemistry might've faltered in the hands of other actors; here, the performances are eccentric and sincere enough to make it work.
As a glimpse at a growingly complicated relationship against the backdrop of Las Vegas, Frank and Lola provokes the senses with its sensuality and invites one's curiosity, but Matthew Ross struggles to transition that intrigue into the noir-ish, sex-fueled thriller that it's designed to become. Ross' script relies on opportune and unlikely conditions that transport Frank over to Paris for his investigative efforts, and the pieces continue to effortlessly fall into place from there, ensuring the chef is either precisely where he needs to be or precisely where he doesn't need to be to fulfill the story's demands. Frank's passion and work history in the culinary arts becomes a crutch for the suspense instead of an appetizing device, while the sort of stoic charisma that Michael Shannon projects doesn't blend with the persuasive detective work that's required of the stern-faced chef to rapidly sway individuals. Matthew Ross crafts a sincere, rocky relationship out of unlikely lovers, but the opposite happens with his dramatic entanglements, reducing believable motivations with excessively fortunate circumstances.
There aren't a lot of big, brazen twists in Frank and Lola either, as the limited scope of what's going on remains concentrated on the psychology of sexual desire, deception, and unfaithfulness, incorporating the presence of a mysterious playboy, played by Michael Nyqvist, as a controlling force in Lola's life. Despite the existence of incrementing swingers' clubs and sex tapes in the story, writer/director Ross doesn't really use them in the expected ways fitting with classic noir sensibilities, instead elevating the personal and provocative tension of the repercussions inflicted upon those caught in their network. He builds this into a globe-trotting journey for Frank that's both inquisitive and self-destructive, though Ross gets too wrapped up in the cynicism of depicting these individuals as "tainted" people to lend authentic heft to the film's bender of a downward spiral. Paired with an ambiguous ending that leaves one free to guess how the focal couple ends up, Frank and Lola serves up a flat, bitter mystery that should've been more robust considering the ingredients in writer/director Ross' basket.
Video and Audio:
Frank and Lola tends to be a pretty dimly-lit film with modest dashes of color, moving between kitchens and bars in the film's Las Vegas and Paris locations in a way that's reminiscent of both Wong Kar-wai and Steven Soderbergh's warm palette choices. Universal's Blu-ray, therefore, needs to be up to the challenge in its handling of muted contrast and subtle palette choices, to which this 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC transfer both hits and misses. Black levels are tough, occasionally crushing out details in darker shadows and sporting wishy-washy mid-levels, but they also enhance the depth of the image and frequently project some really impressive details within darkened apartments and restaurants. Skin tones fluctuate along with the temperature of the cinematography, appearing strong and natural during brighter-lit dining sequences and colder in others, always appearing true-to-life. There aren't many memorable strong details, but some close-ups accentuate textures that deepen the experience, from the creases on Michael Shannon's face to watery makeup on Imogen Poots. A fine-enough digital transfer.
For the lion's share of Frank and Lola, there's little to the sound design beyond fluctuating degrees of dialogue and the ways in which it responds to the surroundings, usually between the mid-low tempo of Michael Shannon and the delicate alto-leaning richness of Imogen Poots. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track respects those intentions, allowing the subtleties of the dialogue to speak for themselves and spread across the front and center channels. Music also comes into the equation, often overbearing the tone of the scene, to which activity fills all channels with big, bold clarity and resonance. The areas where this switches up a bit can be heard in scenes involving dining areas and a certain club, which engages front-end separation with unique activity, though the rear channels are mostly left without any interesting surround elements (sounds of love-making and chatter of diners should've traveled back there). It's an okay, front-heavy track that mostly holds up with the visuals.
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Matthew Ross largely follows a modern film-noir recipe for Frank and Lola, depicting a couple with a unique age gap and a femme fatale with a specific, empathy-earning type of sordid past. The performances from Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots add plenty of substance to the central couple's high and low points, which leads to a uniquely alluring and evocative portrayal of their relationship at first. When the psychological and sexuality-driven suspense kick into gear, however, the film strays from its genuineness and, in the process, doesn't offer much in the way of tried-and-true thrills, concentrating on the internal turmoil created and endured by the film's cluster of damaged individuals. While emotionally dark, Frank and Lola also lacks depth and expressive clarity, losing its perspective alongside the intimate turbulence. Rent It.