Family gatherings are always a rich vein to tap for drama. Populated by the shadows and echos of every interaction past and made exciting by the risk that one of the many things best left unsaid will come spilling from careless lips.
Unfolding across a single dawdling day, Frankie is just such a story. The family matriarch, Frankie (Isabelle Huppert) has brought her thoroughly modern family – of stepdaughter and son, husbands present and ex and one beloved friend – together in beautiful Sintra, Portugal because it pleases her to do so. They have all obliged because pleasing Frankie is just what they do.
Even in the relative seclusion of Sintra, Frankie cannot pass unrecognised. To the world at large, she is film and television star Françoise Crémont and she seemingly carries a touch of divaish petulance into her personal life too. Every member of the clan has a moment to discreetly roll their eyes at her whims, from step-granddaughter Maya (Sennia Nanua) protesting a topless swim to son Paul (Jérémie Renier) rejecting her matchmaking.
It is evident that both Frankie’s devoted husband Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson) and ex Michel (Pascal Greggory) are in pain and we learn that the source of the hurt is the impending loss of their great love. The cancer Frankie survived a few years earlier has aggressively returned and time is growing short for them all. Everyone has indulged Frankie’s wish to be together despite several excellent reasons to remain apart. However, their presence now seems to irk her
Frankie is like a masterclass in awkwardness but one which writer/director Ira Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias appear to be giving unintentionally. They have linked characters together by threads of implied tension yet they dare not pull them taut enough to make them count. Perhaps Paul has money problems or is feeling despair, perhaps Maya’s parents put too much on her young shoulders, perhaps Maya’s mum and Paul are too close…
Or perhaps everyone is precisely as dull and one-dimensional as they seem. Into the weird family dynamic floats movie make-up artist Ilene (Marisa Tomei). Ilene is a butterfly among a cloud of gnats; a colourful and properly drawn person with needs and wants who sees Frankie clearly while her cast of family members buzz from one side of the screen to the other repeating their lines with as little care as we feel for them.
Through Ilene, we come as close as Sachs will allow to truly connecting with Frankie. Ilene admires her artistry while genuinely loving her as a person, the friends enjoy one another and express empathy for the paths each life has diverged along. Ilene’s boyfriend Gary (Greg Kinnear) springs unwelcome surprises on both women – a half-arsed proposal and an unsolicited script – and Frankie dispatches both with the same wry smile.
Gleeson is given less nuance to finesse. Jimmy is a doting husband who is losing his wife. An early conversation with Michel suggests he will never move on from her loss but a later hint that he will be open to consolation contradicts even this pantomime of loyalty. In the closing scene, Huppert strides before her loved ones to stand at the top of a hill and look out to sea. They reach her just before sunset and then, too early to properly see it, turn and walk away. Smartly turning a metaphor for a woman accepting her mortality into a better one for this film.
Frankie opens in UK cinemas on 28th May 2021