European idyll appears comfortable in first gear
Directed by Ira Sachs
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Brendan Gleeson, Marisa Tomei, Greg Kinnear
Award-winning, non-Hollywood filmmaker Ira Sachs (The Delta, Forty Shades of Blue, Married Life, Keep the Lights On, Love Is Strange, Little Men) returns to theaters with all the trademark elements necessary for an art house drama in tow. His latest indie, Frankie, boasts a star-studded cast, an exotic locale, 90 minutes worth of dysfunctional family drama and a tone so low-key it couldn’t possibly overexcite its target audience of retirement age moviegoers.
The “Frankie” of the title is François Crémont, a famed French movie actress of a certain age (played by famed French movie actress of a certain age Isabelle Huppert). It appears that Frankie has forcibly assembled her extended family in a picturesque rural corner of Portugal for a relaxing summer vacation. As Frankie surveys her diverse clan and the pastoral landscape with equal, flinty, closed-mouth judgment, everyone goes about their day, crossing in front of Sachs’ lens at various intervals to trade some one-on-one dialogue.
We have Frankie’s patient husband Jimmy (Irish actor Brendan Gleeson), who spends most of the day commiserating with Michel (Pascal Greggory), a Parisian restaurateur who happens to be Frankie’s first husband. (It’s all good; Michel is gay now.) There’s also Frankie and Michel’s grown son Paul (Jérémie Renier), a louche, lazy rich kid who nonetheless seems to have his mother’s trust. The two wander the hilly, historic streets of Sintra discussing family business. Continuing the extended family is Jimmy’s daughter from a previous marriage, Silvia (Vinette Robinson), who is contemplating leaving her husband (Ariyon Bakare). Silvia’s young daughter Maya (Sennia Nanua), meanwhile, wanders off to a nearby beach and meets a handsome teenage boy with whom she flirts.
As if that weren’t enough, New York hairstylist Ilene (Marisa Tomei) happens to wander through the village with her boyfriend, assistant cinematographer Gary (Greg Kinnear). They’re both working on the new Star Wars film in nearby Spain and have dropped by Portugal for a brief respite. Coincidentally crossing paths with Frankie and her family inspires Greg to resurrect old ideas of directing his own independent film—which, wouldn’t you know it, has a perfect role for Frankie.
Frankie, however, is harboring a secret. Seems that the cancer she conquered years ago has returned, and she is not expected to live out the year. It’s a secret she’s shared with no one other than her son, who seems reluctant to talk about such gauche topics as inheritance taxes. Once viewers are made privy to this information, this simple idyll takes on a whole new weight. This may be, we realize, the last time this family is together.
And yet, Sachs is in no rush to provide them with any particularly poignant moments. Over the dusk-to-dawn course of this day, the family members go about their own personal episodic dramas, oblivious to the larger course of events. Frankie is talked into attending a birthday party for a fan she meets on the street. Jimmy chats with Tiago (Carloto Cotta), a Portuguese guide who loves to spin tales of the local mythology: ancient fountains believed to improve marital prospects and church holy waters said to cure all ills. Silvia squabbles with her hubby. Maya tries out a boogie board. Ilene and Gary discuss getting hitched.
Like a white cotton sheet hung on a clothesline and waving slowly in the summer breeze, Frankie is lovely and sedate and so thin that the sun shines through. Sachs should be commended for avoiding overworked melodrama. There are moments when he achieves (consciously, no doubt) the sort of casual-
Frankie’s haughty, diva-ish acceptance of her fate doesn’t exactly turn this into a tearjerker. One particularly intimate scene between Jimmy and Frankie shows off the skill of Gleeson and Huppert and hints at the impending loss that will soon occur. But for the most part, Huppert seems distracted and dry. Is this a testament to her acting skill: intentionally creating a character who is distracted and dry? Or is she simply unchallenged by the microcosmic assignment? The rest of the cast have their ups and downs, based either on their acting skill or their lack of dramatic arc.
Melancholy in tone and beautifully sun-dappled in look, Frankie is a pleasant and gentle enough sidetrip. But it’s one of Sachs’ lesser efforts—a largely plotless, self-serious character study that deposits its characters in roughly the same place they started. It’s the kind of thing that will appeal to audiences of a certain age and temperament. It’s like Call Me By Your Name with all the walking around rural Europe and talking intact, but all the sex excised. If that sounds like your cup of tea, Frankie is the placid, picturesque episode for you.