Tag Archives: B+

FRANKIE

Producer: Saïd Ben Saïd and Michel Merkt
Director: Ira Sachs
Writer: Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias
Stars:  Isabelle Huppert, Marisa Tomei, Brendan Gleeson, Greg Kinnear, Vinette Robinson, Jérémie Renier, Ariyon Bakare, Carloto Cotta, Pascal Greggory and Manuel Sa Nagueira
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics

B+

Writer-director Ira Sachs moves from the streets of New York, his usual habitat, to the lovely Portuguese mountain village of Sintra in “Frankie,” but his delicate, sensitive touch remains in full flower despite the change of locale. This is an ensemble drama with an American origin but a decidedly European feel.

The title character, Françoise Crémont, played by Isabelle Huppert with her patented air of hauteur, is a celebrated actress suffering a recurrence of cancer that had gone into remission but is now deemed terminal. She has assembled her family—loving husband Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson) and son Paul (Jérémie Renier), along with step-daughter Sylvia (Vinette Robinson), her husband Ian (Ariyon Bakare) and their daughter Maya (Sennia Nanua) as well as her own first husband, gay Michel (Pascal Greggory), Paul’s father, for a final gathering.

Since she aims to tidy up her affairs, Françoise has also invited Ilene (Marisa Tomei), a hair stylist with whom she’s become friendly, hoping to set her up with Paul, who’s moving to New York; but Ilene has brought along a boyfriend, Gary (Greg Kinnear), a cameraman hoping to take their relationship to another level—and to do the same with his career by directing his own script.

Also present is Tiago (Carloto Cotta), a local guide who talks of a holy spring said to cure illness (Françoise dismisses any suggestion that she might indulge), and a fountain believed to mitigate marital problems, which might be of special help to Sylvia and Gary.

“Frankie” is mostly composed of one-on-one conversations as the characters interact, sometimes in ways that suggest their relationships will have a future but at others indicating that they will soon come to an end. Sylvia is in the throes of near-separation with Ian, for example, and Gary finds that Ilene is not ready for the sort of commitment he has in mind. Maya, meanwhile, goes off on an afternoon at the beach, meeting Pedro (Manuel Sá Nagueira), a local boy who informs her that the place is called Apple Beach, because of the Garden-of-Eden temptations it represents (“Portugal is a very Catholic country,” he solemnly explains).

Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias don’t try to resolve all the narrative threads they link together—indeed, they don’t even bother to explain the familial bonds in Frankie’s family all that clearly. Some of the individual episodes, moreover, don’t come off too well—a long conversation between Paul and Ilene in which he abruptly opens up to her about his past with Sylvia is only one that comes across as somewhat forced, if revealing, and the beach sequence with Mata and Pedro, while beautifully shot by cinematographer Rui Poças, feels clumsy simply because the performances by the young actors are so stiff and their line readings dull.

Elsewhere, however, the emotional effect is strong. That’s particularly the case in the sequences featuring Huppert, who once again shows herself among the strongest of all of today’s actresses. The one-on-one conversations she has while talking walks with Renier, Tomei and Kinnear (though he’s not at his strongest here, overdoing Gary’s aw-shucks quality) are all excellent, but the ones she shares with Gleeson are especially so: a scene in which they sit together at a piano while she plays the film’s signature melody—an excerpt from the second of Schubert’s Moments Musicaux, exquisitely mournful—is a masterful example of acting without words.

There’s also a sequence in which, rather reluctantly, Françoise joins an outdoor birthday party being given for a local woman turning eighty, who congratulates her on the courage with which she fought her illness—a comment with a bittersweet undertone. Huppert endows the scene with an extraordinary blend of acceptance and quiet pain.

Sachs closes “Frankie” with an extended sequence in which almost all the characters climb up a steep road to a precipice, where they form into groups to look out into the distance, and then slowly divide up and leave. A distillation of the pattern of meeting and departing that has been occurring through the entire picture, it ends things on an appropriately elliptical note, indicating that the interactions among the characters will continue in ways that are left to our imagination. Like the rest of the film it’s evocative rather than definitive.

Some will argue that the close is characteristic of a film that doesn’t really go anywhere. But the pleasure of “Frankie” lies not in a particular destination but the paths and byways followed in the course of the journey, and the company we’re invited to keep while traversing them.

BY THE GRACE OF GOD (GRÂCE À DIEU)

Producer: Eri Altmayer and Nicolas Altmayer
Director: François Ozon
Writer: François Ozon
Stars: Melvil Poupaud, Denis Ménochet, Swann Arlaud, Éric Caravaca, François Marthouret, Bernard Verley, Martine Erhel, Josiane Balasko, Hélène Vincent, François Chattot, Frederi Pierrot and Stephane Brel
Studio: Music Box Films

B+

François Ozon has often expressed his admiration for Alfred Hitchcock, and in style and content his films have frequently paid homage to Hitch’s work. In that vein his newest, “By the Grace of God,” invites comparison to “The Wrong Man,” that change of pace picture in which Hitchcock set aside his usual imaginative flamboyance to present a straightforward, low-key recreation of a real incident. Ozon’s subject is the pedophilia scandal that rocked the diocese of Lyon beginning in 2014, when a priest was accused of having molested boys years earlier and diocesan officials were charged with having protected him and covered up his crimes. As Hitchcock did with his story of a man mistakenly charged with robbery, he presents the sad tale in a rigorously literal fashion, relying on documents and contemporary accounts and sticking to the known facts as much as possible; the level of scrupulousness in both instances is impressive.

“By the Grace of God” will also be compared with the Oscar-winning “Spotlight,” about the uncovering of pedophilia among the Catholic clergy of Boston. But while Tom McCarthy’s film focused on the work of the intrepid journalists who assiduously followed up leads that led to public outrage against what the “servants of God” had done, Ozon concentrates on the victims of Father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley), who was kept in contact with children by his superiors, down to present-day Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret). The journalists here are either reluctant to publish, or merely follow up on the victims’ efforts to uncover the truth.

To that end Ozon’s treatment becomes essentially a triptych of suffering. The first part concentrates on Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), a committed Catholic and devoted family man whose painful memories lead him to approach church authorities and request internal action against Preynat. Only after he gets what amounts to a runaround from Barbarin does he take his complaint to the police despite the fact that the statute of limitations has passed.

The police investigation leads to burly François (Denis Ménochet), an avowed atheist whose parents complained to the diocese about Preynat years before. Initially disinclined to become involved, he changes his mind and becomes the centerpiece of a victims’ rights organization La Parole Libérée, enlisting others in his effort to seek justice and establishing a website to publicize their work. He and Alexandre join forces despite their very different personalities and approaches, with Gilles (Éric Caravaca), a calm doctor, often having to intervene to bridge the gap between them.

One of those convinced to come forward by the group’s campaign is Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), who has been severely damaged by the priestly abuse. He becomes the focus of the film’s last chapter, finally reaching a modicum of stability in his life through his commitment to the group’s work. His mother, who feels guilt over her failure to intervene for her son, also gives herself over to the work.

The organization achieves some success by the close of the film, but as the final caption cards note, the case is far from fully resolved. Indeed, some of the individuals depicted by Ozon—including Preynat—used the courts in an attempt to prevent the picture’s release, arguing that it would prejudice their right to a fair trial.

With a film like “By the Grace of God,” it’s never possible to know where the facts leave off and a degree of fictionalization takes over. The basic events—dates and messages—as well as the scenes directly based on them can be taken as accurate, of course, but apart from the necessity of compression one must assume that the intimate, domestic scenes among the victims and their families are reconstructed with considerable freedom (the surnames have been changed), as must have been the flashbacks the victims have to their encounters with Preynat and the sequences within diocesan offices.

With that understanding, however, the film has the feel of authenticity, and the same sort of underlying sense of righteous indignation that animated “Spotlight.” The performances, while not flashy (Ménochet is certainly the most the most histrionic of them, as demanded by his rather volatile character, and Arlaud also works at a high emotional level), all have a ring of truth about them, and Ozon and his technical team—including cinematographer Manu Dacosse and editor Laure Gardette—eschew virtuoso camera tricks while keeping the visuals from sinking into blandness.

“By the Grace of God” may not be typical Ozon any more than “The Wrong Man” was typical Hitchcock, but it tells a powerful tale of ecclesiastical misconduct with the gravity it deserves, without sensationalism or sermonizing.