An extended family gathers with assorted significant others in a beautiful countryside retreat. Troubles are shared, grudges and loves declared and forsworn, regrets — they have a few.
There's no resisting the scenically upholstered family saga, which over the years has spawned a sublime European cinema with contributions from the likes of Jean Renoir, Francois Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman, Bertrand Tavernier and many others. American filmmaker Ira Sachs enters this territory with loving nostalgia and a fine eye for the ravishing backdrop, but little feel for the deeper fissures of domestic life.
Front and center in Sachs' new film Frankie is French matriarch Frankie (Isabelle Huppert), a snooty actress who has commandeered her family for what, it's broadly hinted, promises to be a momentous vacation in the Portuguese resort of Sintra. The town offers enticing views of sun-drenched hillside steeples and ocean views, and nearby lies a heavily symbolic misty forest through which meander Frankie's fractious multi-generational friends and family. They're played by a starry ensemble that deserves better than wandering in and out of frame, moping in ritzy French and British accents over amorous distress and existential stasis.
Certainly the key role is a criminal waste of Huppert, a tidal wave of passionately emotional enigma blazing out of a tiny physical frame who doesn't do types if she can help it. Here she struggles with caricature as Frankie, an aging star with an ill-concealed secret, a wardrobe in tasteful shades of magenta and blue, and a quietly supportive husband (Brendan Gleeson), who does a lot of leaning against walls, smiling at grief. Jettisoned former spouses appear in person or in spirit, but one loses count.
Frankie comes to us as the kind of piece of work that has been a staple of countless man-made women's melodramas since the 1940s — sharp-witted, sharp-tongued, shrewd about others but a stranger to herself. She doesn't mince words, but you could practically mouth the words she doesn't mince along with her as she tries to fix up her pouty son (Jérémie Renier) with her hair stylist and best friend Ilene, played by an under-used Marisa Tomei in a strange peasant dress. Cheerily plain-spoken in her all-American way, Ilene arrives with a bland boyfriend (Greg Kinnear), who's hungry for stability. Further offspring (Vinette Robinson and Ariyon Bakare) bring up the admirably diverse rear from England, bickering madly to underline the thorniness of marriage.
Sachs builds a physical world so relentlessly clean, classy, and gorgeous it teeters on the edge of travelogue. But he fails to people it with characters we could care much for or about, so busy are they shilling for banal observations on life. Huppert's palpable efforts to hold back and preserve mystery end up fatally undercut by a screenplay (written by Sachs with Mauricio Zacharias) at once portentous and thin. Which leaves the actress trying to inject fullness into topic statements like "I try never to confuse money and love" and injunctions to her family to "pretend that you accept my fate." All too soon, it becomes crystal clear that Frankie's fate is hers to accept.
Heavy on art-film trappings and paced with Bressonian slowness but skin-deep on fresh interpretation, Frankie leaves us with little to do but nod gravely at the sadness of life and check off, or Chekhov, Sachs's themes of failure and regret, mortality, and acceptance of that which we can't control. At the climax Frankie plays a soft piano with Jimmy looking on, then takes what might be a final walk through the rustling leaves, landing up on top of a mountain. It's not what you think, but it's not much more either. "To have family," the New Yorker critic Richard Brody writes in a fond appreciation of Francois Truffaut, who would have worked magic with this setting and these actors, "is to prepare oneself for loss and grief." That is Sachs' subject too, but unlike Truffaut he doesn't explore it. He just sketches it.