Family vacations are stressful, no matter how picturesque the location. “Frankie” follows this upper-class family on a trip to Portugal that forces them to confront the mortality of their matriarch. Writer-director Ira Sachs excels at ensemble pieces but turns his attention more to his leading lady, Isabelle Huppert. The film retains his trademark warmth. Yet, the film struggles to be as specific or lived in as some of his previous works.
The film opens on its movie star and titular role. Isabelle Huppert plays Frankie, an actress who has orchestrated a family trip to Centra, Portugal. Though the beautiful town has clear skies, a dark cloud hangs over the family. Frankie is ill and the family has come together to say goodbye to its matriarch. Not interested in self-pity, Frankie directs her attention towards making sure her family is all right. This includes inviting a friend from one of her film sets, Ilene (Marisa Tomei), whom she hopes to set up with her perpetually single son, Paul (Jeremie Renier). Not aware of these intentions, Ilene brings her boyfriend, Gary (Greg Kinnear), along with on the trip, thwarting Frankie’s plans.
Director Ira Sachs has made a career out of lovingly crafting interpersonal relationships between people in the midst of uncomfortable transition. Previous films, such as “Love is Strange” and “Little Men,” put faces to conflicts that arose out of gentrification and rising rent prices. “Frankie” takes a loving look at a family grappling with the sickness of a matriarch. Sachs collaborates well with Isabelle Huppert well on constructing the motivations of the titular character. Huppert approaches the character’s mortality with a gentle shrug. She accepts the cards that life deals with her. Thus, Frankie turns her attention to others in her life. Huppert commands the screen at every moment. Her performance rests upon the iconic persona she’s built over an incomparable forty-year career. The film builds to a beautiful and cathartic final few moments that are as lovely as any moment from a Sachs film.
Yet, as well-drawn as Frankie is, the familial dynamics never come alive in the same way. It’s easy to see why a mother would want to make sure her son is cared for before she passes. This brings to mind Diane Keaton’s role in “The Family Stone,” a Christmas perennial. While Huppert does the heavy lifting of this familiar relationship, Renier comes off one-note throughout as her whiny, wet blanket son. Frankie’s other child, Sylvia (Vinette Robinson), doesn’t fare much better. She struggles with nondescript marital issues and a daughter going through her rebellious teenage years. Her storyline feels completely separate from Frankie’s orbit, almost as if it’s from a different movie.
Most disappointing goes to Marisa Tomei’s Ilene. She commands Frankie’s attention, as Frankie tries to manipulate Ilene to fall for her chronically single son. As wonderful as Marisa Tomei’s screen presence is, it’s never clear what specifically Frankie sees in Ilene. They sparked a friendship on a film set, where Ilene worked as a hairdresser. Unfortunately, Tomei and Huppert feel like they just met for the first time in either scene. Tomei comes more alive when she’s acting opposite Greg Kinnear as Gary, her name-dropping boyfriend. They earn laughs as they make plans around a “Star Wars” shoot they are hired.
Still, Sachs knows how to build a rich backstory and inner life that extends past the bounds of the film. There are still relationships and elements of “Frankie” that feel as lived in as some of his best work. Frankie’s current husband, Paul (Brendan Gleeson), spends much of the time hanging out with Frankie’s ex-husband, Michel (Pascal Greggory), who is now an out-and-proud gay man. The men represent a coming together of two eras of Frankie’s life and each feel supported as they say goodbye to Frankie. It’s harder to follow the romantic entanglements of the younger generations when the older adults are so much more interesting.
Though all of the pieces don’t fully come together, “Frankie” still amounts to a pleasurable experience. At a cool 98 minutes, the film feels longer in a positive way. It luxuriates in its location and fantastic actors. Cinematographer Rui Pocas deserves a special shout out. He captures the beauty of the Portugal vacation area. Some may find the movie slow, as the narrative thrust is more of a light touch. Yet, fans of Huppert and Sachs should find themselves spending a pleasant afternoon with “Frankie.”