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Shifting from the New York settings of Keep the Lights On, Love Is Strange and Little Men to one of the most beautiful corners of Europe, director Ira Sachs offers many gentle pleasures in his latest film, Frankie, not least of them the gorgeous locations in the verdant Portuguese mountain landscape of Sintra. Alongside the magnetic Isabelle Huppert in a role that draws with equal grace from her well of dry humor, flinty intelligence, diva hauteur and internalized sorrow, there are affecting moments to savor also from Brendan Gleeson and Marisa Tomei in a solid ensemble cast.
If the sedate, gossamer-thin drama about family and marriage, love and loss lacks the emotional complexity and intense personal investment of Sachs’ best work, its classy old-school art house veneer should help Sony Pictures Classics find an audience for the fall release. That said, this is definitely a second-tier entry from the director, and an odd choice for his debut in the Cannes competition, with the French launch platform amplifying its hint of Rohmer-lite.
The opening gives us an intriguing glimpse into the title character with a few swift strokes. Humming a Schubert piece that will become a melancholy motif in the film, Huppert’s Frankie wanders down garden steps to a resort hotel pool, shrugs off her robe and wedge sandals, and then casually removes the top of her bathing suit before plunging into the water. When teenage Maya (Sennia Nenua) arrives to remind her there are guests in the hotel and she might be photographed, Frankie coolly responds, “It’s alright, I’m very photogenic.” That she can continue to be droll in circumstances we learn are far from happy is part of her charm. At one point she snaps, “I hate that word ‘mature,’ it’s offensive to a woman.”
The film’s action unfolds over the course of a single day during a summer vacation that Frankie, a famous French film and TV actress, has arranged for her family, echoing an Algarve trip we later learn happened many years earlier during another major transition in her life. There’s a sense of this supremely self-possessed woman putting things in order, creating a shared memory to bind the disparate group together and endeavoring to sew connections particularly among those she sees as untethered.
Starting with fragments of occasionally purple dialogue (“This horrible thing makes you lose faith in love itself”) that signal the mournful purpose of the family reunion, it’s gradually revealed that Frankie’s cancer has returned and spread virulently following two years of remission. She is not expected to live out the year. Frankie has an aversion to maudlin displays of pity or tears, but perhaps in acknowledgment of the emotional needs of her loved ones, she has gathered them in this place of restorative natural beauty to provide some kind of comfort — as well as figure out a way around inheritance taxes.
The chief strength of the screenplay by Sachs and regular writing partner Mauricio Zacharias is the decision to refrain from big speeches and let Frankie’s intentions, as well as her state of mind, mostly be surmised with minimal comment.
In addition to her husband Jimmy (Gleeson), the group includes his daughter from an earlier marriage, Sylvia (Vinette Robinson), and Ian (Ariyon Bakare), the husband she is contemplating leaving, much to the distress of their daughter Maya. Then there’s Frankie’s son Paul (Jeremie Renier) and his father Michel (Pascal Greggory), a Paris restaurateur who found the courage to fall in love with a man only after his marriage to Frankie ended.
Finally, there’s New Yorker Ilene (Tomei), a hair stylist Frankie met on a film set who became a close friend. With Paul preparing to move to New York, Frankie has invited Ilene in an attempt to set them up, which hits a snag when Ilene brings along a boyfriend, Gary. A cameraman eager to graduate to directing (he’s second-unit DP on a Star Wars shoot in Spain, we learn in a distractingly pointless detail), Gary is a thankless role for Greg Kinnear after his soulful work in the excellent but criminally underseen Little Men. It’s a nice twist, however, that while Frankie’s matchmaker instincts are imperfect, they may yield unexpected results elsewhere, something she observes with what appears to be both sadness and satisfaction.
Zacharias and Sachs have scripted some lovely interludes, such as Frankie being coaxed by strangers to help celebrate a fan’s 88th birthday while out on a forest walk. But other elements border on the schematic, like Maya’s flirtation with a cute boy at Praia das Macas, a Portuguese Riviera spot commonly known as Apple Beach in reference to Eve’s temptation in Eden. The dialogue here and in scenes with Sylvia and Ian often sounds overly manicured, lacking the naturalness of Sachs’ New York films.
Through Tiago (Carloto Cotta), a Portuguese guide hired by the family, who has his own complicated marital issues, the script also introduces elements of folklore and religion in the search for love and the power to heal. Talk of a Moorish fountain believed to improve marital prospects, or the holy waters of a church said to cure all maladies fits well within the fairy-tale visual aspect of the setting, with its castle-like structures and soft mists settling over lush vegetation.
Frankie scoffs at such superstition, however, having accepted her fate with no trace of self-pity. But that doesn’t exclude stirring tenderness in an intimate scene with Jimmy, exquisitely played by Huppert and Gleeson, in which the enormous weight of his impending loss is made clear. Separate moments she shares with Ilene and Paul also resonate, characteristic of a drama built primarily around one-on-one exchanges, despite the choral aspect of the situation.
Cinematographer Rui Pocas, whose affinity for striking natural settings has been seen to strong effect in films like Zama and The Ornithologist, avoids artificial light wherever possible, shooting with a minimum of fuss in a crisp, composed style that keeps the focus on the actors and their characters. At the center of them all throughout, even when she’s offscreen, is the always compelling Huppert’s Frankie, an inscrutable woman we come to know by subtle means, and an actress always in command, carefully staging her exit.
Production companies: SBS Productions, O Som e a Furia, in association with Beluga Tree, Proximus
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Brendan Gleeson, Marisa Tomei, Jeremie Renier, Pascal Greggory, Vinette Robinson, Ariyon Bakare, Carloto Cotta, Sennia Nenua, Greg Kinnear
Director: Ira Sachs
Screenwriters: Mauricio Zacharias, Ira Sachs
Producers: Said Ben Said, Michel Merkt
Executive producers: Kevin Chneiweiss, Lucas Joaquin
Director of photography: Rui Pocas
Production and costume designer: Silvia Grabowski
Music: Dickon Hinchliffe
Editor: Sophie Reine
Casting: Raquel Da Silva, Theo Park
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: SBS International
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