Isabelle Huppert works her unique magic on Frankie, a film whose insistence on staying in a minor key robs it of the chance to achieve major dimension. Huppert and a stellar cast do their best for Memphis-born director Ira Sachs (Keep the Lights On, Little Men, Forty Shades of Blue) by offering tone-perfect performances to compliment his efforts to create an American version of a European art film.
The screenplay Sachs has conjured up with Mauricio Zacharias is set over one day and night in Sintra, a breathtaking mountain village in Portugal where Huppert — as French film icon Françoise Crémont, aka Frankie — has come to set her life in order. Well, the lives of her loved ones after her own impending death, at least: facing a terminal illness, Frankie is determined to make the family members and friends gathered around her conform to her own wishes of how their destinies should play out.
Easier said than done, even for a force of nature like Frankie. After arriving in Sintra with her second husband, Jimmy (the bearishly wonderful Brendan Gleeson), she decides her petulant, finance wiz of a son, Paul (Jérémie Renier), will meet and marry Ilene (a poignany Marisa Tomei), a hair stylist Frankie befriended on one of her films. Inconveniently, Ilene has come to Sintra with her boyfriend, Gary (Greg Kinnear), a cameraman eager to make his debut as a director, and even more eager to get Ilene to move in with him. Then there’s the matter of her step-daughter, Sylvia (Vinette Robinson) who’s planning to leave her long-time husband Ian (Ariyon Bakare). It’s a secret their teen daughter, Maya (Sennia Nanua) is hell-bent on exposing — when she’s not caught up in her own fraught encounter with first love. Also in attendance at this gathering is Michel (Pascal Greggory), Frankie’s first husband, who left her with the shocking — to Frankie at least — news that he’s gay.
The film builds its complications by showing how these characters — these humans — refuse to be pawns on Frankie’s personal chessboard. Sachs clearly wants to make these overlapping personal relationships into an artful and erotic kaleidoscope of loves won and lost. But the film stubbornly resists coming together as more than a series of hit-and-miss vignettes. Only near the end, in a stunning tableau that illustrates how individual desire laughs at the plans of God — and the ringmaster Frankie — does Sachs turn his wisp of film into something funny, touching and vital.