Director: Ira Sachs
Stars: Isabelle Huppert, Marisa Tomei, Sennia Nanua
Ira Sachs’ films have been generally well-received and have played locally, but its taken the involvement of Isabelle Huppert to truly draw me into the fold. From the outside, I had perceived his work to have a kind of low-stakes, mild-mannered and wholly middle class milieu; something that Frankie has done little to assuage.
This sojourn sees Sachs decamp to rural Portugal for a mostly-English-language vacation with a collection of esteemed actors, Huppet included. She plays the titular Frankie, an actor of great renown who has publicly won a battle with cancer, but who in private is preparing for the effects of its resurgence. She gathers family together, including two husbands and various children, but their reunion is splintered, unfolding over the course of a long, leisurely day in a series of long, leisurely takes.
In this company we have Brendan Gleeson as her quietly suffering present husband Jimmy – an all round good egg who is pitied by the staff at a local bakery. Frankie’s contrarian son Paul is played by a cohort of Huppert’s from French cinema royalty; Jérémie Renier. Frankie intends to play matchmaker and invites a former work colleague along to pair with Paul. Unbeknownst to Frankie, her son’s match, Ilene (Marisa Tomei), has brought along her own partner; DP Gary (Greg Kinnear).
Elsewhere, we find Frankie’s adopted daughter Sylvia (Vinette Robinson) navigating her own marital crisis, while her wayward 15-year-old daughter Maya (Sennia Nanua) wanders off to have her own coming-of-age encounters by the sea. Frankie’s gay ex-husband Michel (Pascal Greggory) and his young lover Tiego (Carloto Cotta) round out the ensemble. All told there are plenty of plates here for Sachs to keep spinning, but the pace and severity of the piece never rises above that of a casual stroll. We’re allotted plenty of time to take in the scenery, and to admire a general display of good taste from the wardrobe department.
Huppert is as dependably fantastic as ever, inhabiting a woman coming to terms with having to let go of, well, everything. She screen sparkles whenever she’s on it. Tomei reveals herself as another of the movie’s highlights, presenting us the less confident persona of a woman trying not to let happenstance direct her life. Indeed, there are few bum notes in the cast, and yet a good amount of the exchanges presented here feel stilted. The turns of phrase and soliloquies undertaken feel decidedly theatrical in nature, as does plenty of the staging, even though most scenes take place out in the provincial locales that Sachs has selected. It often feels as though there are unnatural spaces in these exchanges. Is Sachs inserting his own “wait for laugh” pauses?
This, combined with how recognisably famous most of the cast are, makes it tough to become fully absorbed in the reality of Frankie. This is not to say that Sachs ought to have cast unknowns. Since the notion of celebrity has existed we’ve had films populated with famous faces. But, as Frankie so consistently reminds us, it’s story takes place on the edges of the filmmaking world (Gary is in the neighbourhood shooting second unit on a Star Wars picture). Such persistent reminders also remind us of the film’s own artifice. It’s a strange conundrum that Sachs doesn’t quite resolve.
So the film feels bourgeoisie and unreal, but it has its draws, too. With most of us taking overseas travel off of our agendas for 2021, Frankie offers the vicarious niceties of a holiday by proxy. It’s very postcard gentleness becomes a boon all on its own. And then there’s the film’s long, precious final shot. It may feel as though its been torn right out of the playbook of Éric Rohmer, but there are far worse filmmakers to pilfer from.
A film that appears on the surface to be about letting go and facing mortality ending with a sunset is perhaps a little on-the-nose, but its also telling that each and every character turns away from the setting sun before it can sink beneath the horizon. They reject its finality and are disinterested in completeness. These mircro-dramas are about continuation and evolution, not necessarily resolution.