An exotic locale in beautiful Portugal, an unaffected and powerful performance by a star actress and existential worriment. This is what you can expect from “Frankie,” an ensemble film directed by Ira Sachs that’s asthmatic and lacks energy but fascinated me, nevertheless, because of its main actress Isabelle Huppert and her incredible on-screen presence.
Huppert is one of France’s biggest names. She’s been acting beyond French cinema, appearing in international productions ever since the eighties. Unlike a lot of her compatriots she masters the English language (and she doesn’t pretend to speak British English, instead opting for a more American-friendly intonation) and has taken, since forever, a liking to American directors. In 1980 she appeared in Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” (link) , later, in Curtis Hanson’s “The Bedroom Window” (1987) and Hal Hartley’s 1994 “Amateur.” No other modern-day French actress has flirted with American cinema as much as Isabelle Huppert has.
And yet, Huppert, who became famous in her home country for her turn in the 1978 Claude Chabrol film “Violette Nozière” remains a bit of an enigma, a category of person unto herself (noone compares), a combination of virility, vulnerability, beauty, powerfulness and, sometimes, masochism.
She plays Frankie, an actress who travels to Sintra, Portugal, on a family vacation. There are some important family issues that need to be discussed, some of the couples of the family are divorcing, Frankie is hoping to set up her son with a friend, who unpredictably turns up with someone, jinxing Frankie’s matchmaking ambitions.
In “Frankie” the diminutive but luminous Huppert steals everyone’s thunder, but it’s not very hard. Others in this ensemble drama look like papier maché figures carrying bags of rice. Sometimes they almost look like they don’t know what they’re doing in the movie. It’s a strange thing, the actor-filmmaker relationship, the dynamic that exists and can go either badly or successfully.
Under Sachs’s direction, formidable actors like Brendan Gleeson, or, on a different register but just as powerful, Jérémie Renier (Frankie’s on-screen son), appear blasé, awkward and uninvolved in their character. And yet, “Frankie” had lots of potential, what with a star-studded cast—that also includes Marisa Tomei and Greg Kinnear and takes place in bucolic Portugal—playing characters from Europe and the U.S. with stories to tell, cynicism and bitterness, life issues and claims to settle. Where did the narrative tension go?
In one scene from the film, Frankie is walking through the woods with her son Paul (Renier). Frankie has cancer and won’t live to see another year. They talk of inheritance matters. She hands him an expensive gold bracelet. Paul is about to move to New York City and has money issues. She tells her son that he should take the bracelet now to circumvent France’s prohibitively expensive inheritance tax laws. She then adds that she will be donating the proceeds of a 3M euros apartment in Paris to a foundation, which leads Paul to throw the bracelet into the woods in disgust. Frankie screams hysterically and jumps into the brush to find the bracelet.
A friend who experienced tragedy inspired Sachs to co-write the screenplay for “Frankie,” along with Mauricio Zacharias, a Brazilian screenwriter. The angst and existential worriment present in the forlorn characters in “Frankie” reminded me of the same worries the characters in Tchekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” or “The Seagull” complain about: no satisfactory love relationships, they constantly grouse about how unhappy they are and how much they regret the past. There’s an awareness of the loss of meaningfulness in their lives, a leitmotif in “Frankie.” The negativity stands in sharp contrast to the luminous beauty of the place they’re in.
Sachs takes the right approach to portraying Sintra, a region located in Western Portugual, avoiding postcard clichés to instead play on the divergence between the beauty of the city and the inner turmoil of the protagonists.
In spite of its flaws, “Frankie” by Ira Sachs was an enjoyable and moving experience — recommend!