The lovers in “Frank & Lola” are played by Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots, two exceptionally charismatic, unconventional actors who know how to seduce an audience. In the scene that opens the film, Lola and Frank have seduced each other. They’re in bed together for the first time — a moment whose charged mix of abandon, vulnerability and self-protective veneer is rarely seen in movies.
Over the following hour-plus of increasingly lurid psychosexual drama, nothing comes close to the revelatory intimacy of that brief sequence, though writer-director Matthew Ross (not to be confused with actor Matt Ross, who directed “Captain Fantastic”) certainly gives it a shot in his debut feature.
Against a backdrop of eye-popping locales in Las Vegas and Paris, Ross explores the relationship between a talented but dejected 40ish chef, a 20-something aspiring clothing designer and their considerable baggage. Beneath Frank’s aphrodisiac felicitousness lies a toxic jealousy, and Lola is a complex of self-destructive compulsions. Ross ratchets up their romance’s dark reversals and twists, albeit to diminishing returns.
The film finally rests on his leads, particularly the indispensable Shannon, who recently has turned supporting roles into indelible bursts of life in movies both excellent (“Loving”) and not (“Nocturnal Animals”). He gets to ratchet up the sex appeal and the inner turmoil as a self-taught Queens boy who has worked his way up the saucier and sous-chef ranks. Early in Frank’s relationship with Lola, he whips up an after-hours caviar omelet for her at the Vegas bistro where he runs the kitchen. But all that deliciousness turns rancid fast.
Call it old-fashioned chivalry or drunken excitability, but Frank is the sort who intervenes with his fists when he sees a man mistreating a woman at a bar. When it comes to Lola, his protective impulses awaken the green-eyed monster in more insidious ways. He watches from a coolly fraught distance as she’s chatted up by a rich-kid entrepreneur played by Justin Long, ably navigating the thin line between tone-deaf obnoxiousness and sincere generosity. That Long’s character offers Lola the chance at a pretty damn exciting job, her first since graduating college, gets lost in the scenery as the story turns into a dubious series of transatlantic encounters.
Frank is flown to Paris, in high style, to audition for a world-renowned restaurateur, but he’s less consumed with the tryout for a life-changing chef’s job than with tracking down writer Alan (Michael Nyqvist), the man who, Lola divulges one tearful night, raped her.
The chaos that has been dogging Lola all her life is readily apparent in one of the film’s most striking scenes, in the form of her luxury-journalist mother (Rosanna Arquette), a fancy mess of tequila and décolleté who’s on a first-name basis with Wayne Newton. In a different movie, she’d make a move on Frank. But it will be another woman traveling in rarefied circles, played by Emmanuelle Devos, who lures Frank to the wild side during his night prowl through Paris and the id.
Individual moments are compelling; how they’re woven together is less so, in large part because the film’s title is sort of false advertising. Notwithstanding Poots’s committed performance, this is Frank’s story. Lola is the damaged beauty whose work and dreams and traumas matter only as plot engines.
This is a movie in which two men, over glasses of Scotch, discuss a woman as if she were a recreational pursuit or, more to the point, a possession. One of the men wields a knife, the other a video of naughty goings-on. Their conversation might be a damning comment on sexual politics if Lola had been given more space in the story.
Ross is to be commended for taking chances on his first outing. He delivers grown-up shivers with a strong cinematic sensibility. But however suspensefully the score groans and cries, the emotional stakes dwindle with each overemphatic narrative curve. In stylish moviemaking, as in haute cuisine, ace ingredients can be squandered on a misconceived recipe.
‘Frank & Lola’
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s NoHo 7, North Hollywood; AMC Orange 30, Orange; AMC Rolling Hills 20, Torrance