By Glenn Heath Jr.
Ira Sachs makes films that are quiet only on the surface. Daily routine and committed long-term relationships wrap his bourgeois characters up in what feels like a blanket of normalcy. But internal storms of doubt and jealousy always rage, threatening to penetrate the façade and reveal more sobering truths within.
“Frankie” walks right up to the edge of such a transition and looks over the proverbial cliff. Quite literately sometimes because the impressive ensemble cast spends much of the film strolling the pathways and cobblestone streets of Sintra, Portugal.
Estimable human chameleon Isabelle Huppert plays the film’s sickly namesake, an acclaimed French actress who has gathered her immediate family in the picturesque European town as a kind of farewell. While world media organizations believe she has overcome a dangerous bout of cancer, her actual prognosis is far direr.
Such crucial subtext bleeds through in casual conversations that occur over one long balmy day. Sachs’ browsing camera trails each character at different times, giving them space to oscillate between grief and selfishness. There’s no judgment made against their weaknesses and failures, but “Frankie” also doesn’t let them off the hook.
Frankie’s kind and conflicted husband Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson) slowly comes to grips with what like might look like in the near future, while her pouty son Paul (Jérémie Renier) hides his pain underneath a pompous veneer. Marisa Tomei plays one of Frankie’s close friends, and steals the movie with multiple showstopper scenes that cut to the heart of the film’s appreciation for honesty.
All of this anxiety washes like a wave over Frankie, who is more interested in experiencing what little time she has left rather than getting caught up in the affairs of those who have a future. Which makes Huppert the perfect actor to embody the duality between external stillness and internal panic.
“Frankie” plays like her last will and testament where no earthly possessions come close to sufficing as penance.