At the core of Ira Sachs’ Frankie, an ensemble drama set on an idyllic Portuguese mountainside, is an acceptance of endings. Set from sun up to sun down in one day of a family vacation, Sachs’ characters are all facing closure of some sort – childhood, romance, or for the protagonist and those who love her, one’s mortality. But Frankie isn’t necessarily about a film about death so much as it is about the natural cycle of it all, and our human need for closure before we succumb to it. Inspired largely by Éric Rohmer, nature is both a vessel to find truth and a reflection of what afflicts these vacationers. It’s even quieter work from the director, but no less of an emotionally intuitive piece than his other films.
Isabelle Huppert is the titular actress Françoise that the film’s characters orbit around, bringing all of her closest loved ones together after recently being given a fatal diagnosis. Her primary company is her husband Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson) and her son Paul (Jérémie Renier), but also wandering about are Jimmy’s daughter Sylvia (Vinette Robinson) and her fracturing family, and Paul’s father Michel (Pascal Greggory). Meanwhile, Frankie’s close friend Ilene (Marisa Tomei) arrives with her cinematographer boyfriend (Greg Kinnear) in tow, even though Frankie has eyes to match Ilene and Paul.
The Portuguese village mountainside makes for a maze of sorts for these characters to get lost within and allow their personal conflicts to surface naturally. A slight staginess to the proceedings carries a dash of whimsy, punctuated by the character-focused wit of Sachs’ and Mauricio Zacharias’ screenplay that isolates them even as it draws them together. The interplay between them keeps the film lively despite its calmer surface textures, all while the gravity of the reason for their meeting maintains an often unspoken presence throughout. If sometimes slightly stilted in allowing them to express themselves, Frankie remains masterful in its ability to hold the emotional truth of all its characters in equal empathy and significance.
Which should come as little surprise, given that this is a Sachs film – but his warm approach continues to reward. His typical patience is alive here in the extreme, capturing moments of grace or subtle hilarity that a more hurried eye might miss entirely. It’s a smart approach, as the film’s categorically existential conflict could turn maudlin if delivered through less breezy dramatics. Surprise is in the minutiae, but so is honesty. So is life.
While the film operates largely as an ensemble piece, it is gifted with a breathtakingly humane and immersively performance by Huppert. Some of her most vulnerable work in some time, Huppert feels her way through scenes with fascinating discovery as Frankie comes to terms with her death and experiences waves of isolation and affection. Even in something as gentle as this, the actress still sparks with the possibility that anything could happen, making for an unexpected match for Sachs’ naturalism. With Huppert’s vast emotional register, you feel the weight of the film’s compassion and mourning just from her stoic stare.
Also again at the peak of a Sachs ensemble, Tomei is equally as revelatory as Ilene, dancing about a certain end to her sweet but uninvested relationship. Tomei is often painfully trapped and humanly funny at once, ever the perfect Sachs player to quickly establish layers of interpersonal love and tension between scene partners, and then continually complicate them.
Sachs’ delicate touch in this beautifully meandering story of love, life, and death makes for something uniquely moving, particularly in the film’s quiet final moments. Casualness shouldn’t be mistaken for might, for though Frankie is light on its feet, it is still a sturdy musing.
Frankie was screened at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.