November 12, 2021

Doomed Manic Pixie Dream Girls from vulnerable phase of excitement cycle: Michelle from Frantic (1988)

An earlier post detailed the role that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl plays within the restless warm-up phase of the 15-year excitement cycle -- coaxing wary sad sacks out of their shells, once people are ready to leave their touch-me-not refractory states of the preceding vulnerable phase.

Another post looked at their progression during the following manic phase -- now that everyone is comfortably out of their shells and mixing it up with each other (thanks in part to her), the MPDG can look after her own social and romantic needs. In the broader culture, there's the sense that the MPDG is no longer needed, and we're moving past her. That was the attitude during the early 2010s manic phase, after the most recent heyday of the MPDG during the restless phase of the late 2000s.

But what happens to these types of characters during the next vulnerable phase, when energy levels crash and everyone retreats into their cocoon in a refractory state? An earlier post showed that the male protagonists are more in the mood for a made-to-order robo-gf, so that they don't have to put themselves through the painful over-stimulation of socially interacting with various girls in order to find the right one.

Still, that's just what the guys want, and who the new desirable female archetype becomes. What about the women who, during a restless phase, would play the MPDG role? What are they left to do when everyone wants to be left alone? Their type becomes outright mocked, as in Lost in Translation from the early 2000s vulnerable phase, where a would-be MPDG is portrayed as an annoying ditzy airhead babbling on about how it's so good to get all the toxins out of your body, alluding to SanDeE* from L.A. Story (the previous heyday of MPDGs, the early '90s restless phase).

I was reminded of this series on the MPDG when I recently re-watched Frantic for the first time in 10 years. The protagonist's reluctant sidekick, Michelle, is clearly portrayed as an MPDG type of woman. She's an adventure-seeking free spirit, extraverted and engaging of strangers, and quirky / alternative / not-like-other-girls in her appearance, tastes, and lifestyle.

Aside from these personality traits, she also plays the relational role required of her type -- an earthly guardian angel who serendipitously swoops in to help out a down-in-the-dumps kind of guy. The protag's wife has been kidnapped, which puts him at rock bottom, but even before that, he is shown to be coasting along through one boring professional conference after another, and having a reliable yet humdrum marriage.

Enter the MPDG to bring a fresh and exciting energy to his tedious middle-aged existence. True to type, she also helps him find true love -- i.e., helps him recover his kidnapped wife. After all, the MPDG rarely winds up together with the protag at the end. She is more of a nurse, aid, and so on, to help him reach his full potential.

Yes, for those keeping score on the phenotypes, she fits the profile of the other MPDG actresses -- born during a manic phase (late '60s), hourglass shape, butt girl rather than boob girl. And corporeal, to the protag's cerebral.

At first she has a selfish material motive to reunite the protag and his wife, and she and the protag are merely reluctant partners trying to track down their shared antagonists. But before long she takes a liking to this intriguing sad sack, and they become more of an odd couple, as in a standard MPDG script.

Just like a guardian angel, she takes risks to help him out. By the end, her personal ulterior motive is gone, yet she continues to risk her very life in order to help him achieve his goal. Ultimately, through her sacrifice, the protag does manage to connect with his true love (wife), although the MPDG gets killed in the process by the antagonists.

Her grim fate at the end casts a pall over the rest of her otherwise normal MPDG character arc. Being a carefree gypsy who meanders from one adventure to another, helping out intriguing strangers along the way, is so unpredictable that it could put you in a crosshairs and get you killed. Then say goodbye to your series of adventures and emotional rehab relationships.

It's not that she thinks the sacrifice is not worth it, or has regrets about making it. She could have run away from the final conflict and let the protag and his wife fend for themselves. It's more like she is leading an ill-fated life, and she accepts all that it entails. Like if she tries to help others against a cold impersonal world, she may wind up paying a price herself. No good deed goes unpunished -- but don't let that stop you from still performing those good deeds.

This rather emo take on the MPDG story fits well within the zeitgeist of the vulnerable phase of the excitement cycle. The protag may have been bored and checked-out, but he was not out looking for something new and exciting to reinvigorate him. It was not yet the restless phase, and people were plunged into a refractory state of wanting to just be left alone. And the would-be coaxers are warned about trying to help others out of their shells -- rather than get rewarded here and now, you may get martyred instead.

Examples like these tend to be rare, since the MPDG goes so against the refractory-state climate of the vulnerable phase. But sometimes it's impossible not to notice what character type they're trying to convey, albeit with a distinct spin for a different phase of the cycle. If I think of other examples from the early '70s, early 2000s, or late 2010s, I'll post in the comments.

If you want to watch Frantic, don't bother with the DVD, which was only released in a full-screen aspect ratio. Get the blu ray or stream it, in the proper widescreen format.

Let's end with the iconic dance club scene, which encapsulates the unique twist on the MPDG formula for the vulnerable phase. It's just as much about taking him out of his comfort zone as in the usual story, but it's more disorienting, and it's cut short by the grave reality of getting back to finding his kidnapped wife. (The Grace Jones song begins around 1:20.)

tfw no doomed new wave mpdg gf...

1 comment:

  1. Re-upping to note that The Passenger (1975) has a MPDG (billed as "The Girl"), and is in many ways similar to Frantic.

    Crime committed in a strange foreign land, in the context of smuggling. Local guide to the foreigner protag turns out to be a MPDG, and helps the protag evade the shadowy antagonists, and realize his goals. While also picking up his spirits when he has been separated from his wife (kidnapped in one, estranged / cheating in the other). Both directed by Euro art-house big names (Polanksi and Antonioni), each of whom directed Jack Nicholson in the mid-'70s (Polanski in Chinatown, Antonioni in The Passenger).

    But Frantic was made during a vulnerable phase of the 15-year excitement cycle, so she's doomed. The Passenger was made during a restless warm-up phase, when the MPDG proper emerges, and sure enough she is not doomed in that movie (although, like the role mostly requires, she does not end up with the protag).

    I knew from her carefree pure smile that she had to be a manic-phase birth -- and BOOM, Maria Schneider was born in the early '50s manic phase. Hourglass shape, like the other MPDGs. Not sure if she's a butt woman like the others, though. Could be, or could have both T&A.

    At any rate, I'm the only person who saw her in this movie without having seen her in Last Tango in Paris (one of those "I'll get around to it eventually" movies for me). I'm into '70s thrillers, and am getting to the deeper cuts by now, so I'm watching her in this before her far more famous breakthrough role. C'est la vie.


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