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What does it mean when you hide your leading man under a papier-mâché head? On Michael Fassbender in Frank

I'm not saying it isn't Fassbender under Frank Sidebottom's mask, but the playfulness that comes with doubting it adds a chemistry that is essential to the very best cinema.

Frank.
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender (maybe) and Domhnall Gleeson in Frank.

Michael Fassbender is the star of the skew-whiff new comedy Frank. Or is he? For most of the film, in which the brilliant Irish director Lenny Abrahamson works in the deadpan register of Aki Kaurismäki or Roy Andersson, Fassbender’s face is concealed within a giant papier-mâché-and-fibreglass head with painted-on features. If you don’t already know anything about the movie, perhaps the penny has dropped: this Frank, played (allegedly) by Fassbender, is inspired by Frank Sidebottom, the Mancunian musician woefully under-served by the words “idiosyncratic” and “eccentric.” The Frank in Frank is American and his music harsh and unrelenting, whereas Sidebottom (real name: Chris Tievey) fostered a shrill, trebly, amateurish, novelty-record sound on songs such as his sort-of Sex Pistols cover “Anarchy in Timperley”. The character in the film is still recognisably Frank Sidebottom, with bits of Captain Beefheart and Daniel Johnston thrown into the stew. How far it can be said to be Michael Fassbender is another matter.

I’m not really suggesting that audiences who got to see Frank are being hoodwinked. But there is an interesting tension at play when a well-known performer is both present and unseen in a movie. John Hurt wasn’t famous enough when he made The Elephant Man for that example to be comparable. And Jim Carrey was too recognisably himself, even through the distorting layers of make-up, for his ferocious performance in The Grinch to spark any doubt about who we were watching. Likewise Gary Oldman in Hannibal. But the combination of the tease of a great actor hidden entirely from view, and our child-like act of faith in believing that it really is who we’ve been told it is, creates an unusually complicit relationship between movie and audience. We will give the film our trust. It, in return, will give us access to an extra layer of pleasure derived from the playfulness and uncertainty of the exchange.

There is an element of irreverence, too, in the act of hiring someone as mighty (and, we might as well say it, as passable-looking) as Michael Fassbender and then keeping him under wraps for all but a few minutes of screen-time. Robert Altman was fond of thumbing his nose at the conventions of Hollywood glamour, the etiquette of bowing and scraping before stars (just look at the lack of fanfare he gives Julie Christie in McCabe and Mrs Miller). And it’s no secret that there can be a thrill in the withholding of revelation, of anticipated thrills. Hiding Fassbender is a naughty delight to rank alongside the 100-minute wait imposed before Bruce Willis is allowed to fire a weapon in The Fifth Element.

All movies rely on an element of trust, and a degree of deception: no industry which employs so many body doubles and stand-ins and stunt doubles can be said to be playing it straight. We must simply accept that this somersaulting body or that naked behind or this manicured hand shown in close-up does not necessarily belong to the actor with whom it is connected via the editor’s scissors. No one would storm out of the cinema in protest upon discovering that it wasn’t really Roger Moore dangling from a Union Jack parachute at the start of The Spy Who Loved Me, or that Jennifer Beals used a body double in Flashdance.

Fassbender’s appearance in Frank isn’t quite the same: even though he is largely unseen, this is still a performance of immense physical and vocal stridency. That’s no stand-in under there. And yet… still we cannot be completely sure. It all feeds rather neatly into some of the themes of Frank: about how genius can’t be quantified or pinned down or even marketed. It just is, and we have to trust our gut reaction to it. Besides, a bigger question for me is whether the film plays tricks with Frank’s painted face. Depending on the tenor of a particular scene, you would swear that his expression changes—that he can look variously agitated or placid, menacing or endearing. Did Abrahamson employ subtly different versions of the Frank head, just as Sidney Lumet moved the walls of the set closer on castors to heighten the claustrophobia in 12 Angry Men? Or is this simply the amorphous alchemy of subtle acting and filmmaking? May we never find out.

Frank opens on 9 May.