Director and writer Matthew Ross brings his debut feature to the screen with Frank & Lola. Starring Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots in the titular roles, respectively, the film is a blend of modern noir and romance. It’s also a fresh take on the concept of how people manage to heal, or whether they do at all, following tragedy.
After a compelling opener with the characters, Ross takes us inside their beautiful and tragic world, where Lola runs from her former self and Frank comes to grip with the negative side of his fierce masculinity. What starts as a look at the beginning of a relationship evolves gradually into a rumination on everything, from the effects of sexual assault on relationships to the futility of revenge.
From Las Vegas to Paris: Neon Noir
One of the immediately noticeable aspects of Frank & Lola is its noir feel. The story doesn’t always follow along that path, but Ross uses the visual aesthetic of the genre to drape his characters and their situations in mystery. The first scene is cast in blue and black shadows, as if explaining the mood before a word is spoken. Later, we move into gloomy streets covered in the same shadows, although now backlit by the neon lights of Vegas.
While the character of Lola in particular calls to mind the women of Alfred Hitchcock’s mysteries, or someone Raymond Chandler would write opposite Philip Marlowe, it’s the visuals which ground us in a world of modern noir. The mystery usually associated with the genre grows, but once the plot reveals itself more evidently, Ross’ film starts to feel more like a look at a complicated romance.
Modern Romance Under the Weight of Masculinity
Once Lola reveals to Frank a history of sexual abuse by a man in her past, the mystery of the film thickens. Yet as the mystery unfolds, the relationship between Frank and Lola becomes more intricate. His obsessive personality gives way to a dangerous masculinity, one that cannot seem to focus on the plight of his lover, but rather is aimed at the only thing it sees forward: revenge.
However, Frank & Lola, for all its focus on the idea of revenge, feels like the perfect antithetical response to an industry bloated with rape-revenge fantasies in the guise of horror and thriller films. As we witness Frank go through a tumultuous period of “Should I or shouldn’t I?” and border on violent action, he soon comes to understand the cost of his masculinity. Because what an audience of men specifically need to understand, alongside Frank, is that the assault or rape of a woman has nothing to do with the next man she’s with, it only has to do with her. In that Lola, the victim in question, doesn’t need anybody to do away with her abuser, nor does she even need him driven forever from her presence. What Lola needs is to heal, to be given understanding. And Frank must either accept that, or let her go.
The caveman side of masculinity comes between Frank and his better interests. In the end, Ross leaves us with an ambiguity which pervades the last shot – dominated by a simple reflection in a mirror – and he never leads us one way or another to any answers. But the reflection says it all, as the film is, ultimately, about Lola. Yes, the title implies it’s about them both, and in most ways the plot looks at them in equal measure. Still, Lola is the centre of this film’s universe.
Above all, Frank & Lola is a raw and honest look at the consequences of sexual assault on a woman. Ross examines how a woman can be seen outwardly, to the world and to others with whom she’s romantically involved with afterwards, and the chaos it wreaks on a woman’s life in almost every way possible. The biggest point of Lola’s story, albeit told at times through the lens of Frank and his experience, is that this struggle is her struggle; it’s her pain.
Even if we see Frank battle with his violent masculinity trying to break through, this perceived, tiny affront to his masculine ego isn’t real. The triumph of getting past Lola’s abuse is hers to reach. The finale sees Frank confront this fact. Whether he gets past it, or is eaten alive by it, is left to see. This never changes the fundamental fact that Frank & Lola’s message, if there is one to take away, is that a woman’s personal tragedy is hers to bear; if she requires anything, it’s understanding and not a man to take on that tragedy as his own.
Love Conquers Some Things, But the Soul Conquers All
Ross tells a romantic story in Frank & Lola of two people hurting each other while only try to love the other as best as they know how. Further than that, he offers an antithesis to the rape-revenge sub-genre, all too often adopted as of late by many horror movies. The character of Lola illustrates how a woman is perceived in light of the effects of sexual abuse on her personality. Her situation confronts the reality of wanting to love normally after that abuse has forever shaped her.
This leads to Frank and his eventual understanding of Lola’s tragedy as hers, not his to appropriate. In typical rape-revenge scenarios starting all the way back with Charles Bronson in Death Wish, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, Wes Craven‘s The Last House on the Left and its recent remake, most times a man is a central part of the eventual revenge which takes place. Frank’s own personal journey into understanding Lola, what happened to her, takes an atypical turn. He is representative of modern men, those who want to be empathetic to the plight of abused women. Although Lola is the focal point of the entire plot and its themes, Frank embodies the result of what women actually require instead of white knights riding in violently to supposedly avenge their victimhood.
There’s an almost labyrinthine quality to the screenplay, weaving us back and forth from Lola to Frank, not always sure if the truth is really truth, or if it’s an illusion. Ross puts us directly in Frank’s perspective for most of the film because the audience is meant to discover the story of Lola and her past with him. As we do, we start unravelling the chest-thumping masculinity which drives Frank in how he responds to Lola’s revelations of abuse. The love story between the two main characters drives so much of the film’s intentions, as they work to stay together even after so much hurt. What Frank & Lola does best is provide an affirmation of the capacity of the human soul: to forgive another’s flaws, to overcome those flaws in oneself, to find a way to keep loving despite them, and most of all to endure even after experiencing the worst of human behaviour.
Does Frank & Lola present a better take on relationships under the shadow of abuse than other similar films? Is it an honest view, or does it still feel exploitative?
Frank & Lola opens in theaters across the U.S. and will be available on digital HD and On Demand on December 9.
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