Frankie, from co-writer/director, Ira Sachs, won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Even at a breezy 98-minutes, the picture requires plenty of patience from the viewer. But if you’re willing to accept the film on its own terms, it’s a rewarding experience.
Not a lot happens in this movie plot-wise. Instead, people mostly wander around while having layered conversations. Sachs and Frankie co-writer Mauricio Zacharias’ pensive screenplay allows characters to slowly reveal themselves like moonflowers unfurling beneath the night sky.
The story centres on Françoise Crémont, aka Frankie (Isabelle Huppert), the matriarch of a blended family who has come together for a vacation in the seaside town of Sintra, Portugal. With its verdant forests, dreamy beaches, and classical architecture, Sintra is a character in its own right. And the last thing this film needs is another character. Among the gathering are a current (Brendan Gleeson) and ex-husband (Pascal Greggory), step-children (Vinette Robinson), and a potential romantic partner (Marisa Tomei) for Frankie’s son (Jérémie Renier).
With its upper-crust ensemble (Frankie is a famous actress) and a plethora of characters with complicated romantic entanglements, Frankie begins with an almost Shakespearean verve. But we soon find out the real reason for the family get together: Frankie has terminal cancer.
Frankie is one of the most restrained films I’ve seen this year. It’s right up there with Joanna Hogg’s critical darling, The Souvenir. Much of the picture consists of people walking and talking. Most sequences start and end with a static camera observing people moving in or out of the frame. These instances give viewers the breathing room to reflect on what’s actually happening. The characters nuanced conversations challenge you to lean in and notice subtle traits that reflect who they really are and what they really want.
I love the way that Sachs applies cinematic language to depict each character’s interiority. In one scene, as supposed lovers share their feelings for one another, the indifferent character stands atop a hill, looking down on their wanting lover. You could watch this sequence with the sound turned off and understand what was happening. And I was moved by the movie’s final images, which takes place with no dialogue. But again, depending on your taste, this story may also come off as dull and navel-gazing. Frankie produces the sort of moments that impress cinephiles and leave other viewers saying, “get on with it.”
This film really takes it’s time getting to where its going. And in a lesser movie, I would find myself tapping my foot and checking my watch. But one of the reasons I was fine with Frankie’s pacing is Rui Poças’ striking cinematography. The bold emerald greens, cinnamon reds, and royal purples in the ladies’ dresses almost dance right off the screen. And Sintra’s sloped streets, old churches, and misty forests create fairy-tale backdrops for all the walking and talking. I couldn’t look away from this gorgeous movie if I wanted to.
Even though I enjoyed Frankie, it’s a tough film to recommend. It appeals to a certain type of filmgoing taste, and I can see why someone could love or hate it. It’s both meandering and riveting, full of friction but still tender, distant and yet intimate. With a cast like Frankie’s and a filmmaker as attentive as Sachs, it would take a lot to derail this sophisticated character study.
As a sucker for Sachs’ films, I enjoyed submitting to Frankie and losing myself to the movie’s gentle rhythms. Your mileage will vary.