In truth, the stakes are not that high in Ira Sachs’ Frankie. That may seem curt once you learn that the title character, played by Isabelle Huppert, is about to lose a long battle with cancer, but her fate is already sealed and she’s well aware of it. As she gathers her family for a holiday in picturesque Sintra, Portugal, the petty drama in their own lives surpasses her own and over the course of a few hours you wonder if they’ll all become a little more appreciative of it all.
The Frankie in question is pretty much an echo of Huppert herself. She’s a French actress with global acclaim who can’t take a walk through a small Portuguese town without the locals recognizing her. She even hikes through the forest in high heels sandals, a diva turn we’d expect from the public perception of Huppert. Her husband Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson), on the other hand, is having a hard time coming to grips with Frankie’s fate. His daughter from his first marriage, Sylvia (Vinette Robinson), is looking to leave her husband Ian (Ariyon Bakare) which puts her at odds with her teenage daughter Maya (Sennia Nanua) who quickly flees to the beach. Rounding out the clan are Frankie’s romantically challenged son Paul (Jérémie Renier) and her first husband, Michel (Pascal Gregory), who also happens to be Paul’s father.
With a move to New York on the horizon for Paul, Frankie plays a little game of matchmaker as she finds room for another plus one for their excursion. Irene (Marisa Tomei) was Frankie’s hairdresser on a film she shot in New York and they’ve remained great friends ever since. She’s shooting a Star Wars movie in another part of the country, but shows up with an unexpected guest, her boyfriend Gary (Greg Kinnear). The 2nd Director of Photography on the same flick (the blockbuster becomes a running gag in the movie), Gary is enamored with Irene and within the course of two scenes is already proposing they move in together. When Irene asks him if he’s asking for her hand in marriage he responds effectively with “I guess” and she immediately realizes what a mistake she’s made. Maybe Frankie’s idea of putting Irene and Paul together might actually work out.
In the meantime, Jimmy and Michel explore the sights with Tiago (Carloto Cotta), a local tour guide whose character serves no real purpose but to eventually provide an anecdote about the challenges of marriage. Michel reminisces on how Frankie was shocked to discover he was gay while back in town Ian informs Sylvia of just how difficult their own divorce would be in the UK if she leaves him (legal qualifications that American viewers will find quite surprising if true). And there’s a lot of walking. And there’s lots of exposition. Lots and lots and lots of exposition. And more characters walking through Sintra except when they stop to make revelations about this, that or the other in exchanges that are often stilted and unnatural. That is until Frankie finally meets up with Irene.
It may have even been a surprise to Sachs, but Huppert and Tomei have marvelous chemistry on screen. You believe the bond between their characters more than any other relationship portrayed in the movie. And when Irene learns that Frankie’s cancer has returned, Tomei delivers a wave of subtle, but genuine emotion the film has been clamoring for. Working with Tomei also sparks Huppert as the French icon finally begins to tear down the pretense of her character’s health status. Frankie may be a great actress, but she can’t keep that façade up forever.
When the movie soars it’s, frankly, when no one is talking. That may seem like an insult to Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias’ script (it certainly isn’t a compliment), but these are the moments you’ve been desperately been waiting for. Anything to make this familiar story compelling besides Huppert’s charismatic gaze. Moments such as when Jimmy climbs in bed with a tired, but affectionate Frankie and they make love. Or when a boy Maya meets on her way to the beach flirts with her by leaving her his boogie board. Or when Jimmy finds Frankie playing a hauntingly sad piece on a piano and he can barely hold it together. Or the last sequence of the film which won’t be spoiled here but is inspired to say the least. You just wonder if Sachs’ could have dropped much of the long theatrical conversations early in the picture or storylines that seem superfluous to tell more by saying less, because it certainly becomes a blessing in the last third of the picture.
Luckily, Huppert and Tomei save the day, however. And their pairing is something to genuinely marvel at.
Catch up on all of our reviews from the 2019 Cannes Film Festival below: