While the premise of Frankie is quintessentially a gloomy tale of the title character, the spotlight of Ira Sachs film unintentionally (or intentionally?) turns out to be the location, magnificently captured by Director of Photography Rui Poças. Set and filmed on location in Sintra, a charming, tranquil Portuguese town surrounded by trees in the Sintra Mountains, the location offers a dream-like quality and I can tell you first-hand that it’s a tremendously unique spot, having been there myself, so this was exciting to see on the big screen.
The fundamental idea of Sachs’ movie is that three generations of friends and family meet up in the town because Frankie (Isabelle Huppert) has been fighting cancer with success but sadly it’s returned, and this time she might not be able to fight it. For her and those around her, it’s a chance to calmly reminisce and pay tribute by simply spending time together, as this is her wish. It’s a logical setup but, unfortunately, doesn’t come across as very connected to its audience.
Because we’re visiting her later in life, many of her lovers and friends already know of the situation and a drab melancholy hangs over everybody, including a couple close to a divorce, another couple not sure if they’re staying together and people who appear successful but also deeply unsure of their own existence. The setting of Sintra is undeniably beautiful, and each scene is packed full of blues, yellows, greens and white. These colours either complement the situation, by bringing light to the darkness, or enable the characters to fade almost literally into the scenery and into the world around them.
The key with Frankie is that even in the perfect place, people can still have major problems in their lives but if you take away Sintra, and set the characters into a rainy, concrete city, it would be tough to enjoy this at all. While purposefully slow-paced, the director likes to regularly have two characters talking but let the situation roll, as if this was a stage play. While this isn’t always a bad thing, here many scenes are accompanied by a lack of tension or attachment, and when you’re supposed to connect to their stories, I often found the stories sounded forced and over-described, or even like listening into someone else’s story but without the context ever revealed.
While Isabelle Huppert never fails to hold her screen time and demands your attention, including a stand-out scene where she attends a birthday of a local lady and just takes in the world around her, there is an impressive ensemble cast. However, there’s too many half-worked and over-played narratives that often feel clunky and dated. For example, we learn that Greg Kinnear’s character Gary is working on a Star Wars film, it’s mentioned far too many times, and they throw in a jokey line about George Lucas which makes you wonder when this film is set, which in turn makes it a meaningless piece of information and quite distracting.
We also meet Marisa Tomei as Ilene, and she’s always wonderfully natural, Brendan Gleeson (who is gloomier than I’ve ever seen him before) as Jimmy, the nearly estranged, unhappy couple Ian (Ariyon Bakare) and Sylvia (Vinette Robinson), whose daughter Maya (Sennia Nanua) brings some of the only positivity during a brief encounter and innocent self-discovery with a local boy down at the beach. Jérémie Renier also stars as Frankie’s son Paul, on more than one occasion he isn’t that likeable and also offers some cringe-worthy dialogue about an ex-lover in a chat with Tomei’s Ilene, which comes across as creepy, rather than wistfully nostalgic.
While the performances are capable, and the juxtaposition of the beautiful and the melancholy are seemingly purposeful, and we do realise this reflects the aging process, of dying and lingering in a mishmash of regrets and grudges, there’s little time for caring for anyone because they rarely give you a deeper understanding of who they are as individuals. Once we get to a conclusive point, you wonder if they might – for a moment – show a little spark of life as they view a stunning sunset together but director Sachs, even then, decides to sit off the scene from a mile away, showing everyone separated and still alone, even when they have a chance to connect.
If this is his microcosm of life, it’s a bleak one and without much obvious redemption for his characters. It’s all incredibly beautiful but also quite frustratingly bland.