Frank (Michael Shannon) and Lola (Imogen Poots) are fumbling around the fringes of a relationship, two self-diagnosed fuck-ups who wrestle with the fear that they’re wounds run too deep to be touched without flinching. “I just don’t think I’m going to be any good at this,” Frank tells Lola as they elliptically discuss their potential future together. He’s not kidding. Writer-director Matt Ross’ dull and diffuse feature debut may never figure out what kind of story it wants to tell, but its title characters know exactly who they are — they’re cursed by that knowledge.
A muted film that begins with a stilted romance and then strains to incorporate 50 shades of erotic psychodrama and a few splashes of neo-noir for good measure, “Frank & Lola” is scattershot from the start, and never makes a compelling case for why its story is being told. It begins in bed, the blinking Las Vegas skyline in the distance. At first, the lovers are naked but apprehensive; by the time the title card appears a few moments later, Frank is roughly holding Lola down as they have sex. Not only is it consensual, it could even be construed as a particularly expressive form of communication between two people who privilege honesty however they can find it.
When Frank and Lola meet, each of them are at pivotal points in their lives and trying to pick themselves up from rock bottom. Lola is a fashion designer who projects both the confidence of a beautiful young woman and the vulnerability of a survivor — an underdeveloped character (who’s unsurprisingly defined by her trauma), she’s lucky that Poots can find real pathos in even the sketchiest of ciphers (see: “Knight of Cups”). Frank… well, Frank is a Michael Shannon type, albeit one who gets to flex his sex appeal more than most. A terse, envious, and volatile chef who wakes up at a low boil and simmers throughout the rest of the day, he’s fallen on hard times, and desperate for work that might elevate him out of the catering business.
When Lola tells him that she was raped the previous year, Frank immediately defaults to thoughts of violence. And when he winds up in Paris for an audition at one of the city’s swankiest restaurants, he can’t help but pay a visit to the man his girlfriend has accused of abusing her (a typically skeevy Michael Nyqvist). The plot — such as it is — thickens from there, but every halfhearted twist returns us to matters of jealousy, damage, and the scars it leaves behind. “I never said I was a gentleman,” Frank tells Lola after the darkest night they’ll ever share together, “But I’m not playing games.” He’s right about that, too.
Floating along on tragic undercurrents and sparked to life only by the dangerous chemistry that bubbles between its endlessly watchable lead actors, “Frank & Lola” is too aimless to hold together as a thriller, and too elliptical to work as a relationship drama (and while it doesn’t pass any judgement on BDSM, the film’s view of sex is too poisoned to sustain even an Adrianne Lynne-level erotic charge). Vacillating between pain and numbness — a dynamic that’s only interrupted by a handful of amusingly pointless supporting characters, like Justin Long as a douchebag rich guy or the great Emmanuelle Devos as a conniving sexpot — Ross’ film never finds a way to cut through the paralytic smog of emotion in which it strands both Frank and Lola. The movie recognizes the collateral damage that can be caused by falling in love, and how some traumas lay roots that only sink deeper into the soil when someone tries to rip them out, but it’s never all that interesting to watch either of these people get their hands dirty.
“Frank & Lola” opens in theaters and on demand on Friday, December 9.