Isabelle Huppert heads a colourful cast that ups sticks to the Portuguese coast for mixed results.


Brendan Gleeson and Isabelle Huppert


For me it is 2016's Little Men which stands out as the best work to date by Ira Sachs. At the time he cited the Japanese director Ozu as an influence and, while remaining his own man, Sachs is an independent filmmaker fully aware of cinema from outside of America. With Frankie he has gone further and actually made a film in Europe, one centred on a family gathering that takes place in Portugal in the coastal town of Sintra. It's a set-up that has led critics to compare it with films by such diverse talents as Eric Rohmer and Woody Allen, but only the former seems likely to have been a genuine sounding board. This being a film about relationships featuring talk rather than action Rohmer could indeed have been in his mind, while the playing down of plot as such again echoes Ozu. As was the case with Little Men and its two immediate predecessors, Love Is Strange (2014) and Keep the Lights On (2012), the screenplay credit is shared by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, but on this occasion critics have largely expressed disappointment (it started when Frankie was shown at the Cannes Film Festival of 2019, that being the year in which it was made).


I certainly accept that Frankie is an uneven work, but it is far from being unrewarding and has the rare ability to get better and better as it goes on. It looks fine throughout with the colour photography bringing out the character of Sintra and the wealthy life-style of the film's central figure, the celebrated actress Françoise Crémont known as Frankie (Isabelle Huppert). However, when we meet her, Frankie is already aware that within a short time she will be dead of cancer. But, even though it is this situation that makes her summon her family to Sintra where she shares a house with her husband, Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson), this is not a film about her plight. Rather it's a work which, fully aware of how circumstances can change lives, looks quietly at the relationships of those who assemble.


The characters thus considered extend beyond Frankie and Jimmy and include her former husband, Michel (Pascal Greggory). There still remains a bond between Frankie and Michel who, on leaving her, had come to terms with being gay. No less important here is Frankie's hair stylist and friend, Ilene (Marisa Tomei), invited by Frankie in a match-making move to encourage her son, Paul (Jérémie Renier), to give up his bachelor life. Yet in the event Paul resents being manipulated and Ilene unexpectedly arrives with a boyfriend in tow, the photographer Gary (Greg Kinnear). Two further sets of characters also feature: Frankie's stepdaughter Sylvia (Vinette Robinson) comes with her husband, Ian (Ariyon Bakare), but is considering splitting from him. Meanwhile, their teenage daughter, Maya (Sennia Nanua), sensing the unease wanders off to the beach on her own and has a romantic encounter with a youth named Pedro (Manuel Sá Nogueira).


As this description reveals, there are a lot of characters here and initially the jumping from one to another while the viewer is trying to sort them out makes for a rather off-putting start while the direction of these early scenes seems flat. As for the acting, that is variable making some parts of the film significantly more involving than others. Tomei is particularly good and is aided by sharing so many scenes with Kinnear and Renier. But, be it the actress or the writing, Robinson is much weaker and the matrimonial problems of Sylvia and Ian go for little while the episodes of teenage romance although ably handled don't amount to a great deal. There is a casting issue too, one that may be linked with the fact that what seems to be written as an ensemble piece nevertheless has one character who inconsistently appears pivotal, that being Frankie herself. Huppert as we all know is a great actress but on this occasion she is much less telling than usual. Facing death may make Frankie withdrawn, but there's little here to convey the personality that endears her not only to her husbands but to Ilene. Nevertheless, Gleeson and Greggory both do very good work and, whatever doubts I have about Huppert in the title role, she does contribute to a penultimate scene of real distinction. Here Sachs quite beautifully brings out the sense of time passing and of changes that brings, both those that have come about already and those that will do so. Add a meditative final scene that put me in mind of Virginia Woolf's writing and which is accompanied by aptly chosen piano music by Chopin and you have a film which, whatever its weaknesses, concludes memorably.




Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Brendan Gleeson, Jérémie Renier, Marisa Tomei, Greg Kinnear, Vinette Robinson, Sennia Nanua, Ariyon Bakare, Pascal Greggory, Ana Brandão, Manuel Sá Nogueira, Carloto Cotta.


Dir Ira Sachs, Pro Saïd Ben Saïd and Michel Merkt, Screenplay Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, Ph Rui Poças, Pro Des Silvia Grabowski, Ed Sophie Reine, Music Dickon Hinchliffe, Costumes Silvia Grabowski and Khadija Zeggaï.


SBS Productions/O Som e.a. Fúria/Beluga Tree/Proximus-Picturehouse Entertainment.
100 mins. France/Portugal. 2019. Rel: 28 May 2021. Cert. 12A.