This week we look back at the films of Roman Polanski.
by DANIEL D'ADDARIO
dir. Roman Polanski
When did Harrison Ford stop caring about acting? Did he ever start, in the first place? His best characters make lazy insouciance a virtue. His worst (as in last year’s Morning Glory) come from writers and directors who don’t know the difference between Indiana Jones-y insouciance and simple grouchiness. Roman Polanski’s Frantic doesn’t ask Ford to have a cool attitude (per the title, he spends the movie in a panicky state Indy or Han Solo wouldn’t recognize) and nor does it require him to put on the crabbed, curdled grunt-whine he finds more easily accessible with every new movie.
Frantic is a deeply strange movie in many of its particulars, not least in its treatment of its star. Ford’s character, a doctor from San Francisco whose wife is kidnapped on a Paris vacation, is the squarest man on earth. His temper rarely rises during his search for his wife, and when it does, it’s with the sort of doofy impotence more familiar from Steve Martin characters. An official asks him, over the phone, to spell his location, and Ford shouts, “With an ‘S’—for ‘Shithead’!”
Even his successes are conditional on your accepting that the world of Frantic is moved more by charisma than by intelligence: Emmanuelle Seigner’s character, who combines, here, the look-and-pout acting ability of a WB starlet with the leather-studs-and-suspenders wardrobe of an S&M Elaine Benes, tells Harrison Ford that while what she’d smuggled into Paris set the plot into motion, it definitely was not drugs. “Then what was it,” mumbles Ford, who barely gets to finish before Seigner cuts him off: “Okay, it was dope!”
The differences between Frantic and Chinatown are instructive — while both Harrison Ford and Jack Nicholson are world-class at phoning in performances, Nicholson at least has to enact the process of learning about his environment. Because he never acclimates to Paris, Ford’s performance, as written, is sheer confusion merged with brief eruptions of rage. You keep thinking that no movie would have its character try to find his wife by going to a mysterious bar, meeting a nefarious character (Polanski signals his evil by having him speak English near-perfectly, but with a Jamaican accent), get offered “the white lady” and actually believe it was a Caucasian female, then get forced to snort cocaine in a bathroom stall. That the cocaine has no noticeable effect means that Ford’s character is either superhuman or superhumanly oblivious.
Ford’s perplexity can’t entirely be blamed on Ford — after all, the character doesn’t really even suit his persona. Frantic depicts an intractable world in which, upon the kidnapping of Ford’s wife, hotel employees and government officials treat it as the occasion to have a laugh and a cigarette. The authorities are impotent and that which they ought to be fighting — a shadow universe of evil, in which the Arab terrorists who kidnapped the wife, naturally, and random low-level drug dealers are all part of the same sinister Paris — is uncontrollable and unstoppable and both random and not. At first it strikes without reason, and then everything begins to look like a sign the world is corrupt, even the random guy at the bar who offers you “the white lady.” To politely decline would mean that you knew something about evil to begin with, which is itself evil.
To learn nothing, and to lash out angrily when confronted with quite how much one would have to learn, is the only sensible reaction. That, at the film’s end, Harrison Ford makes a terrible tactical decision and throws the device the armed terrorists seek into the river, makes perfect sense within this film’s universe. In any other movie, they’d have shot him immediately, or tried to. In this one, they stand dumbstruck at the act of goodness Ford backed into while whirling around.
Indiana Jones and Han Solo, to degrees, triumphed because of adventurism. Ford’s character here (whom I’ve gotten this far before saying is named Dr. Richard Walker, though if I mention Chinatown once more I will be obliged to mention the name Jake Gittes) triumphs because this is a movie, okay. And his triumph is deeply conditional, tied in as it is with the death of Emmanuelle Seigner.
Seigner, who married Polanski in real life the year after this movie came out, gives the movie its only moments of levity. She’s not amazing at acting, but her pouting and refusal to give much effort suits her character far more than it suits Ford’s. Who’s more likely to smirk her way through life: a model-pretty smuggler who has a Garfield phone in her apartment or a doctor from the Bay Area who just found out what cocaine is? Seigner gets bubble gum to pop in Ford’s face, too.
The character has to die not only because it gives the viewer the sense of something having happened over the course of the movie—the trouble with movies about bureaucratic rabbit holes is the evocation of the sense-memory of filling out paperwork, the most inconclusive human act. She also, while not evil herself, is a sign of the decadence of the world. She’s terrifically young, telling Ford she believes any four-year-old song is an “oldie.”
She dresses in leather or low-cut dresses and finds excuses related to the locating of Ford’s kidnapped wife to dance quite close to Ford, quite well. If she’d stuck around, the returned wife would have some questions to ask. Instead, she’s a martyr to lust and violence.
Chinatown exposes a world full of crime and greed; it’s about our own time, or Polanski’s when he made it, but it uses period-film signifiers. Evil seems so much more meaningful when it’s removed from contemporary tropes. The Arab terrorists in Frantic cannot be iconic. The indulgence in drugs and sex as signifier of evil is, in addition to being too like a trope whose meaning had by the mid-1980s eroded, seems a bit like Polanski’s self-flagellation. This was only the third movie he’d made since his exile from America, and the other two had been period pieces.
This is how Polanski saw the world — a sexpot dancing too close before she dies, triumph achieved only through yelling loudly and stumbling towards hypothetical vindication, away from a universe of authorities and nemeses who come to look yet more similar.
At one point, Ford finds himself on the roof, evading thugs who’re trying to get at Seigner’s smuggled booty while still hoping unrealistically he might save his wife. His shoe falls, and rather than showing us the distance it does, and Ford will, fall towards obliteration, Polanski has it glide slowly down the roof and come to rest safely upon a landing. That’s the trouble with Frantic — for all its depiction of a grief and panic that need not necessarily be inflicted by Arab terrorists, the film is removed from reality in all the wrong ways.
Frantic plays tonight at 7 pm at the Museum of Modern Art.
Daniel D'Addario is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Brooklyn. He last wrote in these pages about Our Idiot Brother. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here. You can find his website here.
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