Matthew Ross’s Frank & Lola is about an adult male grappling with the mind-blowing revelation that his girlfriend had a sexual life before him. Ross complicates matters a bit with noir tropes (an illicit video, a mystery man, a club orgy that’s meant to be the height of decadence), but the film is rooted unquestioningly in masculine propriety. At one pivotal juncture in the story, the protagonist is led to believe that his lover was once raped, and the viewer senses that he hopes this to be the case, so as to relieve himself of the possibility that she enjoys kink. These are quite real feelings that should be explored by filmmakers, but Ross keeps butting into these themes inadvertently, regarding his hero’s self-absorption with a generally straight face. Ross isn’t examining the ugliness of male possessiveness, but reveling in it. The female in this film, as in too many genre movies, is just “the girl,” who alternates on cue between manipulative tramp and heartbroken virgin.
When Frank (Michael Shannon) and Lola (Imogen Poots) first meet, everything is moody roses. They’re characters who exist only in cinema, working glamorous jobs that require them to occupy atmospheric sets in repose, looking commanding and sexy. Frank’s a chef, unofficially trained in Paris, and Lola’s just out of school after studying fashion design. They meet in Las Vegas, while Frank is on the job, and he makes her a mouth-watering omelet of caviar and French butter. The specifics of their courtship are mostly elided. Ross is aiming for woozy poetry, filling the screen with close-ups of Frank’s tortured face and shots of Lola dressed to the nines, glittering in the fleeting light of rarefied, cavernous Vegas haunts. But Ross isn’t Wong Kar-wai.
Frank & Lola occasionally benefits from the weird energy shared between Shannon and Poots. Ross has an insight in recognizing Shannon’s caged eroticism as a performer, which is wound up intrinsically with his bitter ferocity. Like Gene Hackman, Shannon brings to his characters a distinctively American working-class mojo, which suggests a talent honed by experience rather than theory, setting him apart from many of the movie stars with whom he’s often paired. And Poots emits precisely this aura of remote privilege against which Shannon is usually used as a tonal counterbalance, only without the superstardom to fulfill it, which might explain why she so rarely connects with her co-stars or the audience. This friction between the actors gives the film an uneasy texture that suggests that Frank and Lola are intoxicated by their resentment of one another, but Ross doesn’t explore it.
Instead, the filmmaker lards Frank & Lola with red herrings and stock subplots, oscillating between Frank’s jealousy over Lola, his struggle to land a new stable restaurant gig in the wake of losing a job, and his stalking of one of Lola’s past lovers, the rich, powerful, and evilly European Alan (Michael Nyqvist). Ross ends the film on a prismatic image that suggests some time spent studying The Immigrant, showing Frank to be trapped within several reflections of himself, with Lola pushed to the sidelines. Perspective finally begins to bleed into the film, then, but it’s too little, too late.