To paraphrase a supremely funny Saturday Night Live (SNL) sketch, “Frankie” (2019) is the type of film you can take a warm bath in. The Isabelle Huppert-headlined movie takes us on a leisurely jaunt up and down the steep inclines of Portugal’s breathtaking coastal forests as its familial web of characters jostle with their own insecurities. A typically commanding performance by Huppert elevates the film, but the script by director Ira Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias falls short of its dedicated cast. Like any soothing soak, “Frankie” runs out of heat.
“Frankie,” which premiered this May at the Cannes Film Festival, is a U.S.-French-Portuguese production. The film’s many shots of thick fog undulating over the hills of the Portuguese town of Sintra more than justifies any investment from the Portuguese side. The movie’s plot reads like a tourism marketer’s pipedream: Huppert’s Francoise (Frankie to her friends), a decorated film star, has gathered various branches of her family and friends in Sintra for a bucket list-worthy vacation. The bucket list imperative of the situation is compounded by the fact that Frankie has less than a year to live, and she aims to use this time to get her family’s affairs in order before she is gone.
To Sachs’ credit, “Frankie” does not dump all of this information on the viewer at once. Sachs, Zacharias and cinematographer Rui Poças exert a keen awareness of their movie’s strong points, and the resulting product proves to be a masterclass in pleasantly blasé, atmospheric filmmaking. The script allows its characters’ lives to unfurl gently as they climb to commanding vistas and take deep, measured inhales of the foggy forest air. Refreshingly, “Frankie” is a film almost completely devoid of exposition, resisting the urge to specify the characters’ relationships to each other. Subsequently, our familiarity with the characters feels earned and organic, a notion aided by the cast’s lived-in performances.
Naturally, Huppert gives the standout performance of the film. The script defers to her on matters of emotional complexity, which provides Huppert the space to imbue Frankie with a melancholically enigmatic sense of purpose. In a role reminiscent of her lauded turn in “Things to Come ” (2016), Huppert demonstrates a quietly stirring, deceptively courageous affability in the face of the permanence of death.
Running the gamut of grief, motherly concern and frustration, Frankie reveals her inner contradictions with one plodding step through the forest (in her deliciously impractical wedges, naturally). Huppert and Sachs also make sure Frankie remains fiercely funny and open-hearted, whether she graciously stops by a fan’s birthday celebration or exhorts her ne’er-do-well son (Jérémie Renier) to look for deeper fulfilment in life after she is gone.
Where “Frankie” falters is when it departs from the title character. The gathered members of Frankie’s circle have each arrived in Sintra nursing their wounds and timidly exploring their hopes, and Sachs admirably affords each of them space to grapple with their lives: Frankie’s stepdaughter Sylvia (Vinette Robinson) agonizes over whether she should stay in her marriage; Sylvia’s teenage daughter Maya (Sennia Nanua) spends a day on the beach with a flirty local boy; Frankie’s hairdresser friend (Marisa Tomei) struggles to decide what she wants from her relationship with aspiring director Gary (Greg Kinnear). Frankie’s now-out-of-the-closet ex-husband Michel (Pascal Greggory) trods around Sintra with them, taking in the ennui of it all.
The semianthological structure of “Frankie” gives all its characters space to explore their rich emotional lives. Many of Sachs’ plaudits hail his aptitude for emotionally intelligent, fleshed-out characters and refusal to kowtow to easy answers, as in his 2016 Brooklyn gentrification drama “Little Men” and “Keep the Lights On” (2012), a semiautobiographical portrait of love and addiction. Unfortunately, most of its excursions with these characters feel like unwelcome departures from Frankie’s movie.
In many ways, the film is a victim of its star’s genius; Huppert’s performance so thoroughly outshines those of her co-stars (with the exception of Tomei, who brings a welcome empathy and worldliness as Irene) that she undercuts the filmmakers’ choice to give the other characters so much attention. “Frankie” may be a verdantly gorgeous work of cinema led by a bravura effort from Huppert, but it sidelines its title character for long stretches, leaving the viewer to count down the minutes until she reappears.