In the ’90s, the “Pulp Fiction” revolution inspired a whole lot of bad “Pulp Fiction” imitations, and it also brought forth a new wave of faux film noir — “stylish” low-budget indie thrillers that featured ceiling fans and light glaring through venetian blinds and ’40s-meets-’90s vamps in designer lipstick who strutted and posed like the femmes fatales of legend. Most of these movies were so busy fetishizing the trappings of black-and-white romantic crime cinema that they missed the down-and-dirty essence of it: the thrilling everydayness of noir sleaze. “Frank & Lola,” an authentically twisted love story starring Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots, neatly avoids that mistake. It’s set in the bars, restaurants, and all-too-ordinary apartments of Las Vegas (as well as the ritzy side of Paris), and it coasts along on currents of anxiety and desire, but there’s nothing quaintly genre-ish about it. The ingenuity of “Frank & Lola” is that it takes noir situations and emotions — the lust, the dread, the voyeurism, the possessiveness, the lurch into violence — and says: Welcome to the stuff of an all too plausible modern relationship.
Michael Shannon, with his imposing height and glowering thick features that lend him a certain reptilian menace (he can look handsome one moment and suggest a suave version of Frankenstein’s monster the next), is not an actor we tend to associate with vulnerability. But in “Frank & Lola,” he plays a gifted but struggling star chef who’s a bit of a bruiser, with a core of insecurity he tries (and fails) to mask, and it’s that seed of self-doubt that makes the character intensely relatable. As the film opens, Frank is about to have sex, for the first time, with Lola, and the bluntness of the nudity — we’re confronted, in medias res, with the kind of explicit bedroom scene an inferior movie would have taken 20 minutes to work up to — plants us right in the thick of the characters’ intimacy.
Frank is sexy, gruff, saturnine, wrapped broodingly tight in his career, but also chivalrous to a fault — he’s divorced and doesn’t want to mess up again — and Lola, an aspiring fashion designer with pre-Raphaelite curls and a stare of adoration, seems a lucky find for him. Imogen Poots, with her goldfish eyes and high-beam sensual sincerity, is one of the most vibrant actresses working today — she’s a Greta Gerwig waiting to happen — and she gives Lola a sparkle of wholesome affection that feels bone-deep; we can’t believe the character is anything other than what she seems. But, in fact, she is, and her struggle to keep her life hidden intersects with Frank’s overdeveloped antennae of jealousy. When she’s approached at a bar by a business dude, played with impeccably hard-to-read “friendly” player cunning by Justin Long, she flirts just enough for him to offer help with her fashion career. It sets off Frank’s inner alarm, and in classic noir fashion the audience is right there with him. Is he sexually paranoid or seeing through Lola’s deceptions? Or could it be both?
This is the first feature written and directed by Matthew Ross, and he makes every scene fresh. The film’s images are lit with the luxe retro glow of Vegas and Paris, and the situations are fascinatingly grounded — in the pressure-cooker politics of Frank’s restaurant gigs, in the way Lola’s pathology grows out of how she fakes being a grownup. When Frank auditions to be the head chef of a new Vegas hotspot, he has to fly to France to do it, and his preparation of a meal (with a snuck-in truffle) is as suspenseful as the love story. But Frank is on a mission.
He learns that there’s another man in Lola’s life, a kinky aging married French playboy (played by the always terrific Michael Nyqvist), and the scenes in which these two get acquainted, circling each other like the predators they are, are the sign of a born filmmaker. Ross has the confidence to take a movie places you didn’t think it was going to go and to seize the audience’s fascination. In “Frank & Lola,” there is sex, lies, and forbidden images, but underneath it all there’s the eternal noir question that still haunts so many relationships: When a romance walks on the wild side, is that a sign that it’s real…or doomed?
“Frank & Lola” is really about Frank learning to conquer his doubt in the face of the woman he longs to be with. It’s a coincidence that Shannon is currently costarring (in a very different sort of role) as the taciturn police detective of “Nocturnal Animals,” because “Frank & Lola,” too, is a movie about nocturnal animals, and in many ways it’s as good as Tom Ford’s. It’s poised between reality and paranoid daydream, it’s about the dangerous ways that love can go wrong, and it does the thing that noir was invented to do: It sucks you in.