Ira Sachs’ ‘Frankie’ Is An Overstuffed Family Drama That Somehow Stifles The Great Isabelle Huppert [Cannes Review]

A few great family dramas mark recent Cannes history — last year’s Palme d’Or winner “Shoplifters” comes to mind, as well as Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” in competition this year. Ira Sachs’ Frankie” is unfortunately not among them.

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Sachs’ meandering, slow-to-develop, and slower-to-finish family drama introduces Isabelle Huppert as Françoise, an aging French movie star whose terminal illness means the remaining days with her (confusingly fractured) family are limited. So Frankie gathers them all together in the seaside town of Sintra, Portugal, in hopes of reconciling old feuds and fortifying bonds before she leaves them.

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Without the much-needed aid of a visual diagram, here’s a best attempt at the CliffNotes version: Those in attendance include Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson), Frankie’s well-meaning second husband who spends the vacation grieving anticipatorily, as well as Sylvia (Vinette Robinson), Jimmy’s daughter from a previous marriage, with petulant husband Ian (Ariyon Bakare) and teenage daughter (Sennia Nanua) in tow, each more reluctantly there than the other. There’s also Michel (Pascal Greggory), Frankie’s former restaurateur husband, and his son Paul (Jérémie Renier, with a mustache), Frankie’s lovelorn son, whose predilection for caprice in love spells a saga of romantic woes. And capping off the roster is Ilene (Marisa Tomei), Frankie’s hair stylist who’s unexpectedly brought Gary (Greg Kinnear), a casual boyfriend whose intentions veer toward something more serious, whose presence threatens to thwart Frankie’s matchmaking agenda for her son.

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What a dynasty, and with such talent on hand, you’d think “Frankie” would be as powerful as its titular matriarch, whose presence looms large over the whole affair. Yet somehow, with its dawdling attempt at Rohmerian wandering, the film somehow lacks the structural cogency necessary to support a compelling narrative, while also encompassing enough discernible plot conventions to reveal a screenwriter’s meddling.

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Rarely does character likability factor validly into a qualitative assessment of a film, yet here’s the potentially blasphemous truth: These characters are deeply unlikable. Even their briefest moments of pathos get swallowed by petty squabbles. Paul’s troubles in love make for a mopey Renier; grief turns Gleeson’s Jimmy to a disconsolate husband anticipating his widower status. Meanwhile, Sylvia is pouty and Ian is manipulative, with a daughter whose subplot is so extraneous, its existence justified by its contrapuntal recapitulation of her mother’s own salacious beachside tryst, revealed in due time.

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Even Huppert, French national treasure that she is, seems stifled under the weight of a film overpopulated with les misérables; like her character, she’s tasked with too much, trying to pull together a mess of a situation with little help. Huppert’s Frankie is dignified, stoic, yet with witticisms that feel clunky and unnatural spoken aloud: “Don’t worry, I’m very photogenic,” she assures Mia, horrified at the sight of her topless grandmother-by-proxy in the communal hotel swimming pool. 

Though there are occasional gestures at subtlety, “Frankie” never lets us descend into its own, ambling dream of an evolving, multifaceted family vacation set in the summery backdrop of idyllic, sunlit Sintra. Instead, Sachs asks us to consider conspicuous symbols by assigning them a host of meanings — Frankie’s bracelet, abruptly discarded, is a particular catalyst of action; so too are a handful of symbolic fountains, which promise success in love, or healing, but cannot grant us the one wish that’s really on our minds: for these characters to mean something to us. [C]

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