“Frankie,” by the American writer-director Ira Sachs, is a tiny little trinket of a film. It’s like an elegant bracelet that’s modest enough to go unnoticed, but nevertheless reveals a quietly exquisite beauty to those who are willing to lean in and look closer (even if they have to squint). In other words, it’s an Ira Sachs movie, only more so. But in this one, that bracelet is being worn by Isabelle Huppert, and it fits on her wrist like a second skin.
Sachs has always been a storyteller who doesn’t create his characters so much as he observes them from a safe but intimate distance — watching them the way you might catch yourself staring at a stranger on a crowded subway train — and his recent movies have earned him a reputation for making gentle human dramas that seem more like snapshots than full-sized portraits; even the best of his work (“Love Is Strange,” “Keep the Lights On”) feels as though it could fit comfortably inside your back pocket.
The wisp-like “Frankie” would still have plenty of room to spare. While on the surface it might appear to be Sachs’ largest and most expansive film to date, this delicate ensemble drama about control and acceptance might actually be the smallest thing he’s ever made. It’s the most disarming, at the very least, as it unfolds like (and on) the kind of blue summer’s day that you don’t even start to appreciate until the sun is already halfway over the horizon.
Set across a 12-hour stretch of a misbegotten family vacation in the casually stunning Portuguese resort town of Sintra, and told with the grace of Éric Rohmer’s warmer moral tales, “Frankie” is a bit more scattered than its title suggests. Françoise “Frankie” Crémont (Huppert) might be the lead character, but she only appears on screen every so often; a famous actress who’s forced her extended family to gather for one last trip before her terminal cancer gets any worse, Frankie is the dying star at the center of a story that revolves around her along several different orbits. She isn’t in every scene, but none of them would be happening without her.
“Frankie” is powered by the friction it finds between the banalities of modern life and the enormity of the death that lives right next door, and Sachs’ nonchalant script (co-written by Mauricio Zacharias) taps into that power at every opportunity. Frankie is first introduced going for a topless swim in the idyllic pool outside her hotel; when reminded that people might take photos of the half-naked celebrity in their midst, she just shrugs it off. Jimmy, her second and current husband (played by Brendan Gleeson in ultimate “dad in a jacket and khakis mode”), enters the picture making small talk with a hotel employee who gets in trouble with her boss for telling the guest that he looks tired — he’s been crying since he woke up.
When Jimmy steps outside, he runs smack into Frankie’s old friend and makeup artist Ilene (Marisa Tomei), who just happens to be in town during a break from her work on the latest “Star Wars” movie; after Olivier Assayas’ “Non-Fiction,” in which Juliette Binoche’s character gives someone a blowjob during “The Force Awakens,” this is already the second film this year to invoke a galaxy far, far away in order to reaffirm the clear and present urgency of a character’s dilemma. Frankie, who secretly manipulated this chance encounter in the hopes of setting Ilene up with her son (a mustached and low-key threatening Jérémie Renier), is dismayed to learn that Ilene has brought along her overeager boyfriend, Gary (Greg Kinnear). Gary is J.J. Abrams’ 2nd unit DP, and he’s hoping to collaborate with Ilene on a more permanent basis.
Meanwhile, Jimmy’s adult daughter (Vinette Robinson) is plotting to leave her husband (Ariyon Bakare) as soon as their teen daughter (Sennia Nenua) goes to college, and she keeps sneaking away from family time to surreptitiously call London real estate agents. A seemingly pointless subplot involving the adolescent girl’s trip to a gorgeous local beach stands out for being one of the only parts of the film in which a character isn’t motivated by consequence, or thinking about the future. It may not feel much different from all of the other scenes of people walking and talking through the backstreets of Sintra, but it’s a sharp contrast to the other threads of a story in which almost everyone — Frankie most of all — is trying to manipulate forces beyond their control.
In “Frankie,” which is often light but seldom makes you laugh, it’s almost funny to see how an unpreventable force of nature like cancer can inspire people to try and act like gods with the time they have left. But while the eponymous screen icon definitely hopes to puppeteer all of her favorite people, the extent to which she’s acting remains ambiguous. Is she just pretending to be unafraid of death so that her family won’t keep worrying about her? Is this the performance of her lifetime? Sachs didn’t cast the world’s most unflappable movie star because he wanted to provide clear answers to those questions. But this is a different kind of Huppert movie — you can tell, because the scene where she plays piano isn’t followed by a brutal murder or self-mutilation; it’s actually preceded by a moment of rare tenderness, as Frankie and her husband hold each other naked in bed.
Predictably brilliant even in small doses, Huppert wields her screen persona with great purpose, as the actress plays herself in a way — fierce and famous — only to dismantle that disaffected armor as the day begins to fade. Frankie’s steely resolve doesn’t crack so much as chip (par for the course in a film that has no room for melodrama, and ends with a protracted longshot that reduces its characters to specks in the distance), but Huppert draws our attention to every last spot that gets exposed. Even when she’s not on screen, you can feel her absorbing the serenity that other characters manage to eke out as, in a most non-didactic way, they begin to accept the things they cannot change. Huppert has certainly given broader and more exciting performances, but none have ever felt quite this close.
Nevertheless, it’s tempting to imagine how “Frankie” might have been a broader and more exciting film. It drifts by with all the force of a mild summer breeze, and — as is typical of Sachs’ jewel-like work — it leaves you feeling like you could have spent another 90 minutes with these characters. For better or worse, this one also leaves you feeling like Sachs could have spent another 90 minutes with these characters, too. Sometimes a movie is told with such a light touch that it threatens to blow off the screen and out of mind completely. Then again, “Frankie” is never a more achingly honest portrait of what life has to offer than when it feels like it should have been bigger, somehow.
“Frankie” premiered in Competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release it in theaters this fall.