To say that Roman Polanski’s Frantic (1988) may be the best movie ever made about jet lag is not a back-handed compliment. The film is like a romanticized variation on jet lag in all of its illusions, confusions and nerve-racking coincidences, as the hero attempts to put the pieces together from the moment he enters the picture.
In Repulsion (1965), Catherine Deneuve was asked, “Have you fallen asleep?” In Frantic, the hero’s wife repeatedly asks him, “Do you know where you are?” He does not. As we later shall see, he never really does find out where he is, for this is a film in which the most beautiful city in the world can feel more like a hedge maze, and in which the most innocent of Americans can be reduced to the crankiest and most paranoid of Yankee tourists.
At the time Frantic was made, Polanski told Le Nouvel Observator that his reasons for making the film were geographical. "From the start," he told them, “the idea was to make a film in the city where I live. I wanted to stay at home after being away for two years in Tunisia.” He was talking about the experience of making Pirates (1986), which had been the biggest critical and commercial failure of his career; Polanski wanted to rebuild his ever-so-fragile reputation in the eyes of the public, and sought opportunity in going back to the drawing board and retreating to familiar territory. From Repulsion, he brought back Gerard Brach as a storyteller; from Chinatown (1974), he brought back Robert Towne as a script doctor; from out of nowhere, he brought former semi-professional soccer player Jeff Gross to infuse the screenplay with an accurate awareness of modern life in Paris. But Polanski himself remained the supreme auteur: “I wanted to get rid of everything that was too obviously quaintly Parisian and tried to show the town of today. It was the way I see it and not as Americans might imagine it to be.”
Wasn’t Polanski’s comment an indication that his film was meant to put Americans in his shoes? Everybody already knows about the hardships he suffered in the late 1970s’s, when he was a respected Polish filmmaker who had suddenly found himself lost in translation at the center of a damning Los Angeles legal system. Seen today, Frantic plays sort of like Polanski’s sweet vengeance against the United States; he seems to be asking his audience, “How would you like it?” The film is full of eccentric characters that loom in the background and stare at the hero with a devilish glee, enjoying the heck out of giving him a hard time. The French police howl at his fury. A cackling Jamaican accosts him in the stall of a men’s bathroom. A dog watches him from the front seat of a taxicab, salivating at his curious demeanor.
The hero is Dr. Richard Walker (Harrison Ford). He and his wife, Sondra (Betty Buckley), fly into Paris early in the morning, tired, disoriented and cradling each other. Walker is supposed to go to a luncheon later, but he’d rather not attend; in defiance, he teases his wife, crumples up his speech notes and stuffs them in his mouth. He’s not really here to be a spokesman at a boring medical seminar—he just wants to spend the day with his wife. As Polanski illustrates for us, they’re very much in love. But that love is put to the test when Walker wakes up, looks around, and is dumbfounded when his wife is not there. Nor is she anywhere else in the vicinity of their hotel. She has disappeared.
Harrison Ford’s performance as Richard Walker is one of his absolute best. When you compare it to his other performances in that decade—for Steven Spielberg in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981); for Ridley Scott in Blade Runner (1982); for Peter Weir in Witness (1985) and The Mosquito Coast (1986)—it seems pretty much a given that the 1980’s was Ford’s finest hour as an actor. Study the natural discomfort in his facial expressions. Look at how exhausted he is when he runs up flights of stairs. Or when he grows impatient with the heads of American Services, grabs the head Embassy Official (John Mahoney) by the arm and demonstrates the possible conditions of his wife’s kidnapping. “You know what it means to me, ‘he had his arm around her’!??" he rages. "Here, like this! He could have had a gun—like this! Here, pointed right at her! ‘Shut up, smile, walk up the lobby!’ Huh? Like this! Huh?” Ford’s performance is a marvelous demonstration of the fatigues of jet lag, and we’re consistently amazed that the actor is able to make it from one set piece to the next.
Frantic is primarily about Walker’s journey to recover his wife, but Polanski does something peculiar, in that he presents the hero with an object of temptation. This is Michelle (Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner), a club youth who is intercepted by Walker after he discovers her in possession of his wife’s suitcase (“YOU PICKED UP THE WRONG SUITCASE AT THE AIRPORT!”). From this point on, Michelle becomes Walker’s ally, but for an entirely different reason. Walker wants to find his wife. Michelle wants to get back at the thugs who may have stolen her money. But then there’s a scene in which Walker is taken to Michelle’s apartment, and a funny thing happens: Michelle casually takes her top off, her breasts partially exposed, and Walker quickly retreats to her bathroom and shuts the door. We are well aware of the sexual tension between them.
Though Polanski never explicitly acknowledges it, there is temptation for Walker to forget his wife and go for Michelle instead. One reason could be the possibility that Walker’s wife might not have been kidnapped at all but may, instead, have been whisked away by a lover somewhere in Paris. Walker refuses to accept this as truth, although it makes for a helpful alibi after he begins fending off curious bystanders. To get the police off his case, he tells them that Michelle is his mistress. To rescue Michelle when she is beaten by angry thugs, he sneaks into her apartment from the rooftop skylights, slips into her bedroom, strips naked, makes himself visible and then valiantly assaults her tormentors: “Don’t mess with me, man! I am an American, and I AM CRAZY!” Most hilariously, when Walker is stopped by his old colleague, Peter (David Huddleston, aka Jeff Lebowski), at the airport (with Michelle in company), Peter grins at Walker’s “mixed with the bags” excuse—while Edie (Alexandra Stewart), a friend of Sondra’s, sneers that maybe she’ll “see any new faces in HER life.” The scene is a pointed demonstration of the different ways in which males and females react to extramarital affairs, not to mention how they tend to simply regard them without actually acknowledging them.
Another indication of Walker’s sexual dilemma is indicated in the physical appearances of the two actresses. Betty Buckley, who looked ravishing as the gym teacher in Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), is made here to look aged and plain; Polanski is pointing out that a man can love a woman even after her graceless beauty has faded. In contrast, Emmanuelle Seigner is tempting and sexy as the young Michelle, who initially gives Walker a hard time but slowly begins to develop feelings for him, which we sense right away after she plants a sincere kiss on his cheek in an earlier scene. Later, when she and Walker attend an Arab nightclub seeking more clues, Walker dresses in his usual business attire while Michelle dresses in sultry, provocative red. Many Internet jokes have been made about their eventual dance scene, in which Michelle grinds and writhes all over Walker on the dance floor—while Walker is stupefied as to where to put his hands and feet. The most he can manage is a desperate clasping of her into her into his arms at one point. So fatigued is he by his search for his wife that he is almost willing, now, to trade her for another woman.
Polanski has always liked to tell stories in which protagonists are able to solve mysteries through the use of clues that are already in their possession; think of Rosemary’s demonic childbirth pains in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), or even Ewan McGregor’s discovery of his predecessor’s GPS system in the recent The Ghost Writer (2010). The clues in Frantic are the two-mixed up suitcases, one of which carries a miniature Statue of Liberty encasing a “Krypton” device that is being hunted by Arab terrorists. The Krypton is, of course, the film’s McGuffin. Its only purpose in the story is to serve as a plot device driving the action of the film. It does allow for the conception of some tremendously suspenseful sequences, as when Walker finds himself balancing on a rooftop and is flabbergasted when his suitcase bursts open, its contents spilling out to the streets down below. Suspense is milked even further by Ennio Morricone’s groovy score, as well as Polanski’s general ease with this type of material.
But the film would have been just another conventional action thriller had it not been for the core dilemma faced by the hero. Walker doesn’t realize it, but he has to make a choice: Sondra or Michelle. Initially, we think Michelle has no interest in him, but we are wrong: when Walker ventures off to recover his wife at last, Michelle is disappointed that he doesn’t take her with him. “I don’t want your money, Walker,” she says. Of course she doesn’t. She wants to help him. She wants him to find his wife and return to his life of happiness—even if it means sacrificing her own. Polanski allegedly disliked the film’s ending, in which Michelle dies trying to fend off the Arab terrorists who have Sondra in their custody, but I think it has held up well today. Consider how Walker’s attitude towards his situation suddenly changes at the last minute. Even after he has recovered Sondra, he’s still worried about Michelle; he ignores Sondra’s plea to remain at her side, and runs off in a futile attempt to rescue Michelle from the terrorists. It’s like he’s attempting to take both women home with him, and not just one.
Walker’s victory comes with a consequence. He could have had Michelle. He could have ditched his wife and his kids for a fetching young vixen. He chooses his family instead. It is not a decision he will likely ever regret, but he’ll carry the burden of making that decision, always. Michelle’s last words (“Don’t leave me alone”) will be on his mind for the rest of his days. I think this is what Frantic is ultimately about: the choice of love over lust. But I think it also asks something else: can love be found in lust, too?