As a filmmaker, Ira Sachs, the director of “Love Is Strange,” “Little Men,” and (his masterpiece) “Keep the Lights On,” is like a flower that keeps sprouting new tendrils, growing ever more beautiful and complicated and delicate. His new movie, “Frankie,” may the closest that anyone has come to making an American version of an Eric Rohmer film. I say that having long compared Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” and its sequels to Rohmer (and make no mistake: all three of the “Before” films are marvelous). But “Frankie,” even more exactingly, re-creates the deceptively casual and meandering but pinpoint Rohmeresque sensation of a small handful of characters wandering around, not doing much of anything but revealing, through conversation and (occasionally) through action, who they are and how, almost imperceptibly, over the course of one movie, they might change.
“Frankie” is a film made with immaculate craftsmanship (and one non-Rohmer element: a musical score). Yet for all its naturalistic elegance and lighter-than-air precision, it’s an American Rohmer film that doesn’t, unfortunately, feel close to being a major Rohmer film. The movie it most recalls is “Pauline at the Beach” (1983), because this one, too, is about a group of people lolling around on a summer vacation — and, in fact, the film tips its hat to “Pauline at the Beach” by casting Pascal Greggory, who played the young hunk in that movie, as a white-haired, white-bearded French gentleman who, rather shockingly, is the oldest-looking character here. (Those of us who grew up with Rohmer may look at Greggory now and do a double take, reflecting on our own passage of time.)
“Pauline at the Beach” was a defining Rohmer film, and one of his signature art-house hits, and any movie that pays homage to it as engagingly as this one does has my instinctive approval. However, part of the genius of that film is that it was like a door-slamming bedroom farce done in slow-motion realistic Rohmer drag. “Frankie” could have used more of its flowing complication.
In “Frankie,” Sachs does a riff on Rohmer that’s even more minimal than Rohmer. The entire film takes place on a single day, and it’s set in Sintra, a picturesque mountain village in Portugal — lush forests, long and winding roads, beautiful ancient churches and landmarks, a becalming mood of awed stillness. Françoise Crémont, known to her friends and family as Frankie, is a French art-house movie star very much like Isabelle Huppert — played, conveniently, by Isabelle Huppert. She’s leading her extended family on a vacation, and it takes a while, as it often does at a movie, to figure out everyone’s relationship to everyone else. But here there’s a noteworthy quirk to the process: In “Frankie,” sorting out who’s who, and what’s happening in their lives, is almost all of what the film is. In a funny way, there’s a spoiler-alert dimension simply to delineating the characters and what they’re up to.
It will also sound like a spoiler if I mention Frankie’s medical condition — but honestly, it’s the premise of the movie, and it’s revealed very early on: She’s suffering from a terminal illness and doesn’t have long to live. This, naturally, creates a situation in which her family members aren’t just gathered around her on what will likely be their last trip together. They’re all taking stock — of their marriages, their togetherness, their separateness, their loneliness, their futures, their dreams.
Frankie has been married twice, and she and her husband, Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson), are tender soulmates; he walks into a bakery wiping tears away, because the thought of a life without her seems impossible to him. Frankie has a son, Paul (Jérémie Renier), blond and sullen, who works in finance and is about to move to New York, as well as a step-daughter, Sylvia (Vinette Robinson), and these two grown-up quasi-siblings have an ineffable tension between them (the source of which turns out to be a pretty haunting story). Sylvia, who never loses her look of pouting petulance, has been married for 20 years to Ian (Ariyon Bakare), and their marriage appears to be on the rocks, but she’s trying to conceal her divorce inclinations until she finds a place of her own. Their teenage daughter, Maya (Sennia Nanua), gets in the way of that deception, and Sylvia and Ian finally have a conversation about what divorce would mean that’s scalding, from every angle, in its real-world gloom.
The way to bring encounters like these to life is to stage them with an unpolished quotidian quality that’s more surprising — more dramatic — than “drama” (or than light indie comedy). Ira Sachs accomplishes that. In “Frankie,” we’re held by the unassuming documentary everydayness of it all. Frankie has launched a scheme to set up her son with Ilene (Marisa Tomei), a movie-industry hair stylist she’s become friendly with. But even though she invited Ilene to join them all, Ilene went and brought along her boyfriend, Gary (Greg Kinnear), a cinematographer who’s eager to bump up his relationship with her to the next level.
Greg Kinnear knows how to play ardent and desperate at the same time. The scene where he proposes a new living arrangement to Ilene, with twin places in upstate New York and the Upper West Side, is painful to watch, because we get caught up in the idyllic vision of this middle-aged man trying to be as romantic as someone in his twenties, and Ilene, by not jumping for joy, tells us all we need to know about what a quixotic challenge that is.
Rohmer was an anti-romantic who believed in love. Sachs tries to come up with his own version of that bittersweet sort of cynical worldliness, but what’s changed — or, at least, what Sachs brings to the equation — is how gun-shy everyone is. The one adult on hand who has found a kind of peace is Michel (the Pascal Greggory character), Frankie’s first husband, who learned that he was gay and never looked back; Greggory plays him with a wizened European contentment. The women, in relationships or not, just about all feel alone — not abandoned, but sealed into spaces that their partners, or potential partners, simply can’t comprehend.
Huppert, drawing on a wit that too many of her roles have buried, makes Frankie a celebrity who is all-seeing, and who regards the illness that’s taking her away too early with a tough-shelled irony that refuses all pity. Huppert, reveling in her aura, doesn’t make a wrong move, but I wish Sachs had allowed her to express a sadness that we didn’t just have to read between the lines. There are a few surprises in “Frankie,” and the movie, in its placid way, wants to deliver a tug of revelation of what life is about. The trouble is, life at the end of this day doesn’t look very much different than it did at the start of the day. Even Eric Rohmer might have watched this movie and said, “Nice! But is that all?”