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Ira Sachs Frankie Review

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Frankie | Review

Frankie | Review

A Death in the Family: Sachs Sacks Huppert in Sun Dappled Soap Opera

Ira Sachs Frankie ReviewThe latest film from American director Ira Sachs is set in the lush, sun-dappled climes of Sintra, Portugal, wherein inimitable Isabelle Huppert stars as the eponymous Frankie, a popular film and television star dying of cancer. The various members of her bric-a-brac extended family have been summoned to join her, not so much as to say goodbye, but as an opportunity to spend some precious memorable moments together as she succumbs to her terminal illness.

Scripted by Sachs’ partner and usual scribe Mauricio Zacharias, their latest endeavor is a multicultural hodgepodge of noted cast members assembling for what’s meant to be a subtle, slightly nostalgic homage to a dying matriarch who wields significant power and presence over her intimates. Despite its intentions and an indubitably renowned cast, Sachs’ latest is also his most uneven offering to date, a surprise considering a filmography built on estrangement and outsiders, often featuring foreign film notables in unique situations, such as Paprika Steen and Dina Korzun. Enjoyable but often haltingly mannered thanks to a myriad of off-center tangential (arguably unnecessary) subplots it’s a mixed bag of narrative flourishes emitting, perhaps, an appropriate whiff of strident melancholy and the fecundity of affectation.

Frankie (Huppert) is a famous French actress who battled cancer two years ago and seemingly overcame it. However, it seems the disease has returned, spreading all throughout her body, with her doctors believing she won’t live to see the new year. And so, with all her faculties about her, she has asked her immediate family to gather together for a vacation in Sintra, Portugal, where she can share a landscape with them in which she has fond memories. Accompanying her is husband Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson), whose daughter Sylvia (Vinette Robinson) is involved in her own marital distress with husband Ian (Ariyon Bakare), as witnessed by their teen daughter Maya (Sennia Nenua). Frankie’s son Paul (Jeremie Renier) and his father Michel (Pascal Greggory) are also on hand. To top it off, Frankie invited her close personal friend and hair stylist Ilene (Marisa Tomei) so she could introduce her as a romantic interest to Paul…except Ilene has unwittingly brought her boyfriend Gary (Greg Kinnear).

Huppert arrives with one of her most demure presentations to date, a quiet and reserved shell of an actress who seems resigned to the fact of how her power over her extended family has dramatically waned. If anything, this Portugal trip seems designed as a ruse for her to introduce her irascible son to a potential love interest upon his impending move to New York. Of course, the likely candidate, played delightfully (for the most part) by Marisa Tomei as the odd duck in this ensemble, throws a monkey wrench in Frankie’s plans by inviting a boyfriend (Greg Kinnear, with much less to do than in Sachs’ Little Men), a second DP on the same new Star Wars film on which she is currently a stylist. Niceties in these industry homages abound, and sometimes tend to dominate the otherwise carefully plotted messages lurking in these varied conversations. Renier (who appeared as Huppert’s son in Joachim Lafosse’s dark drama Private Property, 2006), is a rather off-putting, icky spoilsport. It’s too bad then that script calls for him to use an awkward moment with Tomei to explicitly spell out the brief bits of weirdness already implicitly evident in his previous interactions with step-sister Sylvia.

While New York and London seem to be the originating context for the script, the striking amount of dialogue related to the price of property, income, inheritance tax and desirable locales rings more closely to something born of Los Angeles. While the narrative seems to treat its characters like they’re meeting in some sort of pin-ball machine firing formation, wherein people come together, are drawn apart, then come together again, it seems what makes the most viable connection is who and how two parties can afford to live together. Kinnear’s horribly ill-timed marriage proposal is predicated on property and economic gain—likewise, the impending divorce of Sylvia from her husband (for reasons which aren’t quite clear besides her predilection for her step-brother) revolves around what she could afford as a woman without an income—and whether or not you’re familiar with whatever part of London she would be relegated to, it sounds undesirable. Lording over it all is Huppert as a gleaming portrait of self-control. Kinnear approaches her about a film he’d like to direct her in about an opera singer who’s lost her voice, evoking Greta Garbo. We get the sense this iconic actress is meant to be the template for Frankie, with Portugal as her swan song. She may be gathering them all together now, but the hour is neigh for her to divorce herself from her self-anointed throne.

Unfortunately, Frankie plays like the art-house version of The Family Stone (2005) and several of these characters could have been easily excised to provide more meaningful exchanges amongst principles. Pascal Greggory (who played Huppert’s brother in Techine’s The Bronte Sisters in 1979) is barely viable as her gay ex-husband. Likewise, for Sennia Nuana as Maya, who has a brief flirtation with a hunky boy at the beach (chewing his way through some odd dialogue relating to Adam and Eve and the beach they’re frolicking on, which shares a theme).

Even Brendan Gleeson seems underutilized playing a husband who has all the characterization of a lukewarm bowl of porridge. Even as Huppert does her mournful best as a fabulous film star on the verge of going gently into that good night, Frankie’s magic works best only when it involves her physicality. But Huppert, like cinematographer Rui Pocas’ delicious frames of Sintra, make this well worth the running time.

Reviewed on May 20th at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival – Main Competition. 98 Minutes.

★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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