In Frankie, written and directed by Ira Sachs, Isabelle Huppert stars in an ensemble piece that illuminates a terminally ill actress’s final attempts to control the tangled relationships of her extended family.
Family Affairsby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Frankie is like a cross between A Midsummer Night’s Dream and To the Lighthouse. The film is set in an idyllic sylvan location (Sintra, Portugal, rather touristically shot, and which afterwards will doubtless be on everyone’s bucket list of places to visit). The sunlit beauty of the location almost overshadows the star quality of the actors who roam around its narrow streets, woods and endless beaches just a short tram ride away.
Isabelle Huppert plays Françoise Crémont (known to all as Frankie), a French star of cinema and television. She has summoned her extended family to these glorious surroundings in what she intends as a last farewell: although it is only revealed gradually in the film, she is terminally ill. The action takes place during a single day. She has instigated this three-generational gathering to sort out for the future the various tangled relationships she is leaving behind and, more practically, to make arrangements to avoid inheritance tax. Frankie is so famous that on one of her country walks (in unsuitable shoes) she is hijacked by a middle-aged Portuguese fan to join her birthday party.
To be honest, I would watch Huppert in absolutely anything. Her role of Frankie is such typecasting that it’s not really a stretch for her, but she still adds her own unique, disquieting sensibility. Frankie is unsentimental and pragmatic about accepting that she has only months to live, refusing to believe in the fantasy of the life-saving miracles promised by Sintra’s famous fountain. She is in control of herself and her family – until perhaps a realisation comes that there are some things she can’t control.
Frankie is accompanied by her second husband Jimmy (privately grief-stricken, bear-like Brendan Gleeson). Her first (now out gay) husband Michel (Pascal Greggory) also makes an appearance. Their son Paul (Jérémie Renier) grew up with him in Paris. Jimmy’s daughter (Frankie’s stepdaughter) Sylvia (Vinette Robinson), who grew up in London, is there too, having marital difficulties with her husband Ian (Ariyon Bakare, His Dark Materials), and their teenage daughter Maya (Sennia Nanua), who is aware of her mother’s plans to leave her father. Frankie has also invited her American film hairdresser colleague Ilene (Marisa Tomei), hoping to matchmake her with Paul, but she unexpectedly turns up with a cinematographer boyfriend, Gary (Greg Kinnear), which threatens Frankie’s plans. Showing them the town is Portuguese tour guide Thiago (Carloto Cotta), also with his own marital problems.
It’s not until halfway through the film that these so, so complicated extended family relationships start to become clearer. The co-production is multi-lingual – mainly English, also French and Portuguese – with most actors having to switch between their native language and one that is not their own. Unfortunately this makes the delivery of some scenes, and possibly the film as a whole, lifeless – some scenes are important, some mundane. Most are differing combinations of just two people together, talking, talking. Frankie and Paul have a significant scene while they are walking together. Paul has an extraordinary scene with Ilene, which illuminates some of the past and explains some of the present. Frankie and Jimmy have a surprisingly tender and sad scene in bed together, given their physical disparity.
The magical surroundings exert a strange effect on the assembled company, much as in the enchanted wood in Shakespeare’s comedy. Things don’t turn out as they appeared at first they were going to. As the day comes to a close, Frankie becomes an observer of life going on without her, and at the same time she is herself observed by someone. Though much of the film’s impact is anti-climactic, and as a whole it doesn’t really work though it does stick in your mind, the final shot in the sunset, where for the first time for a moment all the family are in the same place, is sublime.
Frankie is released in cinemas on 28 May 2021 in the UK by Picturehouse Entertainment.