Frank: The fine line between genius and madness

June 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

Frank (dir. Lenny Abrahamson, 2014)

Frank (dir. Lenny Abrahamson, 2014)

Warning: Here be spoilers. If you haven’t seen Frank, don’t read on. If you have, go ahead…

Imagine you’re an office drone stuck in a dull seaside town, itching to break out of the place and show off your musical genius (never mind that your songs consist of barked, totally un-insightful observations about passersby, set to tunes that sound suspiciously – no, exactly – like Madness songs). By a stroke of bizarre luck you end up being recruited to play keyboards in a band that’s passing through town, but it isn’t quite what you bargained for.

Frank (Michael Fassbender), Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), Baraque (François Civil), Don (Scoot McNairy), Nana (Carla Azar)

Frank (Michael Fassbender), Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), Baraque (François Civil), Don (Scoot McNairy), Nana (Carla Azar)

Because the band consists of a near-mute drummer with a killer fill and a permanent baleful stare. A passive-aggressive bassist who only speaks French (even though, after several months, it becomes apparent that his English is fine, he just doesn’t feel like talking to you). A theremin player with a face that could sour milk at two hundred paces and serious anger management issues. A manager who nonchalantly admits to having spent time in a mental institution because of, among other things, his sexual attraction to mannequins (‘it’s a condition’). Oh, and I haven’t even gotten to the singer. He can compose strangely catchy songs about the most random of subjects (a carpet tuft) at the drop of a hat. He can turn almost anything (drinking straws, cheese graters) into a musical instrument. He’s got a great voice (shades of Neil Hannon). He’s incredibly charismatic. He’s a little unpredictable, but he’s also warm, engaging, and altogether rather loveable. There’s just one problem.

Frank

He wears a great big papier-mâché head over his real one. And he never, ever takes it off.

Oh, and you’re stuck with this mad crew in an isolated cabin somewhere in County Wicklow, recording an album that, it is becoming painfully apparent, will never be finished.

Welcome to the world of Frank.

Frank is easily my favourite film so far this year (i.e. post-Oscars). Not just for its brilliantly sly black comedy and the subtlety with which director Lenny Abrahamson handles its gradual shift into tragedy and one of the most poignant final scenes in recent memory. Not just for its stellar cast – Domhnall Gleeson as the initially sympathetic but ultimately repellent Jon, our humble, talent-free narrator, Maggie Gyllenhaal as the bracingly vindictive Clara, and Michael Fassbender doing the all but impossible and turning Frank, the man in the big fake head, into a compelling, fully realised human being for whom you feel wrenching sympathy as he starts to come apart at the seams.

No, what makes Frank so compelling for me is its take on the relationship between creativity and mental illness. Namely, that it dares to question the assumption that they are inseparable, a trope that goes back to the Romantic era and has long since devolved into simplistic but unshakeable cliché. So much so that Jon, surrounded by eccentric people infinitely more creative and talented than he is and desperate to find an explanation for why he doesn’t measure up that’s somewhat more forgiving than ‘you’re just no good’, seizes on a bit of information related by manager Don – that he and Frank first met in a mental institution – and extrapolates from that a miserable, abusive childhood for Frank from which he derives his genius. He even takes to Twitter to bemoan his own all-too-normal childhood and the resulting lack of mental health issues/musical genius. (One of Frank’s other pleasures is that it understands the more ridiculous and pernicious aspects of social media better than just about any recent film, with perhaps the sole exception of The Social Network.) Rather than allowing Jon’s fatuous assumptions to stand unchallenged, the film’s final act takes them to pieces, most succinctly when a contrite Jon tries to make amends for the damage he’s done Frank by seeking him out at his parents’ house. ‘He was always musical’, Frank’s plainspoken mother tells Jon. ‘If anything, [his mental illness] slowed him down.’

It got me thinking about other artists who have had brushes (or more) with mental illness and our perception of them and their work. William Blake, with his visions of angels, would likely be considered ill today, hauled off and drugged up… and we would be deprived of some truly glorious poetry and art. But figures like Blake are, I think, the exception. I don’t think anyone with sound aesthetic judgment would ever claim that the work Dante Gabriel Rossetti produced post-nervous breakdown ever approached the power and originality of his earlier work. And Vincent van Gogh, unwitting poster boy for the notion of the mad artist, actually killed himself precisely because he feared that his illness would make it impossible for him to continue creating art.

Apart from its questioning of the link between madness and creativity, one of the most refreshing – and rare – aspects of Frank is that, unlike so many films about artists (and I use the term in its broadest sense), it actually takes seriously Thomas Edison’s much quoted but much ignored definition of genius as ‘one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration’. How many films are there out there that show painters slathering their canvases as if in a trance or writers or composers dashing to their desks in a fever of inspiration and pouring out their ideas on paper in one ecstatic, effortless burst of scribbling? I’ve often wondered if perhaps film as a medium is inherently unsuited to depicting what a long and thankless struggle the creative process often is, but Frank is an exception to the rule. There are certainly a few moments when inspiration trumps perspiration – I don’t know whether Abrahamson or Fassbender deserves the most credit for this, but when Frank is improvising a song the lyrics feel as if they’re genuinely stream-of-consciousness (that above-mentioned song about the carpet tuft? Actually, surprisingly good) – but the film’s middle act, the recording of the album, perfectly captures what a painful, frustrating slog the process is.

Oh, and the spoiler mentioned above? Well, it’s that the fake head does eventually come off, but in a manner that will probably surprise everyone. And despite the fact that the whole film up to this point has felt somewhat like an elaborate game of chicken – when is Frank actually going to (both figuratively and literally) lose his head? – I don’t think I can be the only who felt as if I’d had the wind knocked out of me the moment he finally appeared without his mask. (I don’t think I’ve ever seen Fassbender so naked and vulnerable before, and I include Shame in that statement.) But that it has to come off is movingly conveyed in the final scene – Jon has reunited Frank with his bandmates, and in a near-empty club, he sings a new song with them – an odd, doleful ballad called ‘I Love You All.’

It’s the best song in the film, and you can’t help but wonder if this might be because he’s finally started to deal with his own demons.

No more madness. Just genius.

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