Sometimes a little simplicity can provide a welcome respite from auteurs’ stylish exercises and genre hybrids. That’s exactly what director Ira Sachs puts on offer with his inter-generational family drama “Frankie.”
The story of a dying matriarch who assembles the extended clan for one last family trip studiously avoids melodrama or theatrics of any sort, enfolding instead as a kind of melancholic tone poem about a family dealing with impending change, as they take a series of unhurried strolls through the Portuguese town of Sintra.
Because it follows French and American actors as they chattily wind through a picturesque European setting over the course of an uneventful day, “Frankie” could easily be retitled “Before Sunset: At Death’s Door,” but the project’s original title, “A Family Vacation,” would be equally valid.
Without any big meltdowns or major dramatic turns, the film feels something like a family album, presenting a series of snapshots of various people at different stages of life gathered together at one particular point in time.
As you can guess, at the center of it all sits the dying Frankie, a 60-something French actress well-known on both sides of the Atlantic, played by Isabelle Huppert, a 60-something French actress with a career on similar coasts (who is happily in fine health, may she remain so).
Taking a role designed to collapse the divide between performer and character as opportunity to uncover new levels on naturalism, Huppert offers another beautifully modulated turn in a part that is primarily reactive. Her best moments arrive as subtle winces and bodily shifts, like when she goes to an older woman’s birthday or gets offered a new script, and we can see her process in real time that she will never see that age or star in that film.
Knowing she doesn’t have much time left, she unites with her new husband Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson), son Paul (Jeremie Renier), ex-husband Michel (Pascal Greggory), step-daughter Sylvia (Vinette Robinson) and her family to spend an idyllic last holiday together, although they mostly spend time dealing with their own personal issues.
Unbeknownst to anyone else, she’s also invited her stylist friend Irene (Marisa Tomei) with the plan to engineer some last-minute matchmaking with her son, but the American friend arrives with her boyfriend Gary (Greg Kinnear) in tow.
With all the pieces on the board, the film moves forward at an unhurried pace, giving room to each character as they consider their own paths forward. Like most ensemble drama, some narrative strands prove more successful than other; Gleeson and Robinson feel particularly underused, but Tomei is quietly sensational as a vibrant woman entering middle-age, while feeling as uncertain as she had 20 years before.
As the lead’s friend and confidante — the one person present because she was asked, not because she was expected — Tomei gets some of the best scenes in the film in those she shares with Huppert. That seems entirely by design; they are the few moments of peace when Frankie stops mulling over her dimming future and allows herself to live in her present.