Gay filmmaker’s latest drama is pretty but flimsy

Out gay writer and director Ira Sachs’ new drama, “Frankie,” is lovely but also a pretentious concoction of Europudding. Opening Nov. 8 at the Landmark Ritz at the Bourse, the film is set in in Sintra — a backdrop as beautiful as the international cast of actors. “Frankie”’s elegiac tone suggests Sachs has been listening to melancholic Portuguese fado music.

The film concerns the title character (Isabelle Huppert), an actress, gathering her extended family plus a close friend, Ilene (Marisa Tomei), for a vacation. Frankie does not have long to live, a fact that is only briefly discussed. But this elephant in the room seems to freight every aphorism — “Find it before you look for it” — and every moment with meaning. The drama and the characters nearly buckle under the weight of it all. Frankie stumbles upon a birthday party and forces a smile as she sits next to an 88-year old stranger blowing out candles. As Frankie becomes forlorn, silently acknowledging to herself that she probably won’t have any more birthdays to celebrate, it feels obvious and contrived. At least Huppert’s expressive performance here elicits sympathy for Frankie. 

However, this slight film barely gives viewers enough time to get to know the characters. The first act of “Frankie” quickly — and didactically — introduces all the characters and their situations. Frankie’s step-daughter Sylvia (Vinette Robinson) is looking to leave her husband Ian (Ariyon Bakare) and asks their teenage daughter Maya (Sennia Nanua) to keep quiet about her plans. Frankie’s son Paul (Jérémie Renier) is preparing to move to New York, and his mother says that he should find the right woman. (She has one in mind: Ilene). Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson) is Frankie’s current husband; Michel (out actor Pascal Greggory) is Frankie’s gay ex-husband. Ilene, her friend, arrives with her beau, Gary (Greg Kinnear). Gary proposes to Ilene in Sintra, but her response is non-committal.

The characters all talk and talk about love — having faith in love, not confusing money and love, and even expressing ideas about eternal love. One character, Thiago (Carloto Cotta), a tour guide, describes his wife as being “like the police,” to define his relationship. Maya finds a potential boyfriend on a day trip to the beach, hinting at young love. Even a myth about an ancient fountain where women drink to find a good husband is included. All these observations about romance and relationships suggest the importance of love and the fragility of it. Sachs makes his points in a gentle fashion that allows viewers to absorb them. Even though Frankie tries to play cupid setting up Paul and Ilene, the film is not really a comedy. At least two scenes feature the characters discussing inheritance tax.

The best moments show Frankie in control. Her unexpected encounter with Gary has her sizing him up and dismissing him. When she and Paul take a long walk down a country lane, they each communicate a subtext that comes to the surface when she gives him her ornate gold-and-diamond bracelet. Paul takes this literally heavy-handed symbol that represents love, wealth, and legacy, to magnify the tensions between mother and son. There are also two warm and tender scenes of Frankie and Jimmy together. One where he crawls into bed to hug and kiss her, and another where she plays the piano as he sits beside her. These silent moments of the loving couple just being together convey more emotion than any dialogue in this talky drama.

“Frankie” should have featured more scenes like these. The subplot about Sylvia and Ian feels superfluous, and Maya’s romance feels underwritten. These characters are not quite developed enough to care about; they seemed designed to echo how love can break down or blossom. Also, a strange exchange occurs between Ilene and Paul, where he tells her a rather inappropriate story that could be read as his effort to rebel against his mother’s matchmaking wishes.

Sachs suggests more than he tells, an approach that can be worthwhile for viewers who like to fill in the narrative gaps and backstories, but it can also muddle more than illuminate. The film offers beautiful piano music and gorgeous shots of Sintra as breathers between the dramatic scenes, but it is hard not to want more from the characters or the story.

The ensemble cast benefits from Huppert’s knack for conveying Frankie’s calculated thoughts and emotions through her tone of voice or body language. In support, Jérémie Renier and Marisa Tomei stand out because they each get meaty parts. 

“Frankie” is perhaps too subtle a film to be truly satisfying, but the few strong moments are worth savoring.