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.