Although Roman Polanski has adapted the conventions of the mystery-thriller genre to his own ends since Knife in the Water (1962), Frantic marks his most direct engagement with the classic legacy of Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang.
Beyond its evident, highly entertaining action elements – kidnapping and rescue, hair-raising stunts and the journey of an ill-equipped Everyman into a shady, criminal underworld – Frantic is a remarkable attenuation of the Hitchcockian point-of-view structure.
The novelty and tension of the project derive from the simple fact that we see and hear only what the hapless hero, Richard (Harrison Ford), himself experiences.
We are locked into Richard's consciousness and can only intuit a wider context of events and their significance through the subtle hints and signs that Polanski masterfully plants – such as the disdain with which French citizens regard this pushy American.
At the centre of Frantic is the most unusual relationship between a man and a woman in Polanski's entire oeuvre. Marked by chastity and a lack of emotional bonding, it is a chalk-and-cheese coupling par excellence.
Against Richard's stuffy, impatient demeanour we observe the earthy, resourceful Michelle (Emmanuelle Seigner). She represents everything in the wider world that Richard neither understands nor empathises with.
In his bullish way – and in light of the eventual consequences – Richard is a cousin to Jake (Jack Nicholson) in Chinatown (1974). The positive aspects of the story – Richard's heroic self-discovery of strength and cunning, the drive to reintegrate a broken family unit – are counterposed against a nagging sense of waste and loss.
Like Brian De Palma or Dario Argento, Polanski approaches the thriller genre as a true formalist. As in The Ninth Gate (1999), the world of the fiction resembles a video game space that is entered and exited. He reduces the plot to essentials, the characters to types (Richard's function is defined by his surname: Walker), and traditionally moral or patriotic themes to opaque structures.
As always, Polanski gives us a film that is inexorably logical and perfectly crafted on the surface – but which keeps its deeper intentions at a subterranean level of mystery.
© Adrian Martin June 2001