From the first shot of “Frankie,” Ira Sachs’s intense and restrained melodrama, it’s apparent that the film’s physical environment—its settings, furnishings, and wardrobe—will be crucial to its action. That opening shot shows Isabelle Huppert wearing a saffron-colored robe and descending a short staircase set amid a sumptuous, sun-dappled green lawn. Then she approaches a Hockney-blue swimming pool and removes her robe near a sharp-edged chaise longue, revealing a bright orange bathing suit. The movie exudes comfort, money, leisure, pleasure, and cultivated refinement—and its dramatic premise, dropped into the story gradually and indirectly, makes a cruel and universal mockery of these values. Huppert plays a famous French actress named Françoise Crémont, nicknamed Frankie, who is dying of cancer and summons her loved ones to a last gathering, in the Portuguese seaside town of Sintra, where the movie is set.

Death comes no less for the famous than for the obscure, for the refined no less than for the crude, for rich and poor alike. Sachs’s film, which he co-wrote with Mauricio Zacharias, turns the looming clichés of that notion on their heads in pursuit of a distinctive idea that’s powerfully conveyed by Sachs’s directorial imagination. The aesthetics of “Frankie” aren’t pierced, deflated, or dispelled by Frankie’s fate, by the human condition; rather, they’re heightened. The villas and hotels, the woods and beaches and hills of Sintra are, in effect, a plein-air stage where Frankie produces a real-life play that its actors, her loved ones, are both performing and watching. They emerge transformed, having for once seen their own lives with the artificial, concentrated, and transfiguring clarity usually reserved for spectators in the presence of a dramatic masterwork.

The cast of characters in Frankie’s life is varied and international (as is the cast of actors who portray them). Their intricate tangle of relationships leads to emotional abrasions, situational tugs of war, and irreconcilable knots. Frankie is married to Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson), whose daughter from his first marriage, Sylvia (Vinette Robinson), is there with her husband, Ian (Ariyon Bakare), and their teen-age daughter, Maya (Sennia Nanua); that family lives in London. Frankie’s first husband, Michel (Pascal Greggory), a successful restaurateur, arrives from Paris; so does his and Frankie’s son, Paul (Jérémie Renier), a finance executive who is about to take a job in New York. One of Frankie’s dear friends arrives, too—Ilene (Marisa Tomei), a movie-set hair stylist. Ilene is currently working in Spain on a “Star Wars” film, and she brings a friend of her own—Gary (Greg Kinnear), the second-unit cinematographer on the “Star Wars” shoot, with whom she’s in a relationship.

The group is also joined by Michel’s friend, a local tour guide named Tiago (Carloto Cotta), whose presence and guidance is in no way incidental: while in Sintra, the group plans to take advantage of its ancient, alluring, and out-of-the-way attractions. These outings are, in effect, the set pieces in Frankie’s production, the planned expeditions in distinctive places where, by design, something is supposed to happen—and which serve as fixed points amid the troupe’s improvisational roundelay of spontaneous rambles, accidental connections, and intimate encounters. Sachs imbues these encounters with a fine-grained behavioral texture; his characters, inspired by the rarefied atmosphere of the setting, confront the grand dramas of their lives by way of terse declarations, sudden gestures, fleeting glances, and graceful silences. (Tomei nearly steals the movie with the quiet exaltation that she brings to Ilene’s rapid new reckonings.)

Sylvia is unhappy in her marriage to Ian, and her unease is intensified by Frankie’s illness. The harsh contradiction between the presumptive pleasures of a family reunion in a breathtaking locale and the pretext for that gathering spoil it for her in advance, and, what’s more, lend her inchoate frustrations and desires a new and sharpened urgency. Paul is a capable businessman whose love life is a mess—he dwells on failed relationships and has trouble beginning new ones, and Frankie has planned a solution for him: because he’s about to move to New York, she hopes to set him up with Ilene, whose relationship with Gary is also suddenly intensified by the fraught premise and dazzling pleasures of the gathering.

It takes money to pay for these pleasures, and money is at the center of the movie; Sachs and Zacharias don’t stint on the specifics. Estate planning recurs throughout the film. Frankie estimates the value of her main asset, her Paris apartment, at around three million euros; she estimates that her bracelet, a gift from a wealthy former lover, can be sold for forty thousand euros. Sylvia and Paul don’t hesitate to look ahead to what they think they can expect in the way of inheritance. The money is everywhere: the price of London apartments is a source of dour confrontation between Ian and Sylvia as they contemplate divorce, as is the price of New York apartments as Ilene and Gary discuss marriage. It’s also a question for Tiago, who lives elsewhere in Portugal and whose marriage suffers the stress of his annual seasonal departure for Sintra.

The movie’s unfolding confrontations and crisscrossing connections also highlight a glorious outdoor fountain, a mysterious old church, a gazebo featuring ornate blue and white tiles of oceanically lacquered depths, exotic mists enshrouding distant vistas of castles, mystical forests threaded with looping roads, wide and inviting ocean beaches—and also well-appointed kitchens, comfortable living rooms, fine restaurants, and even such well-run public accommodations as the town’s picturesque yet efficient streetcars. (They also highlight the allure of the characters’ clothing; the movie’s production and costume designer, Silvia Grabowski, and Huppert’s own costume designer, Khadija Zeggaï, are crucial artistic collaborators.) Sachs’s proscenium-like images catch glints off the sword-sharp edges of the elegant dialogue. The characters look uncertainly ahead and pull memories from painful depths, as in a fine and poignant exchange in which Michel confides to Jimmy about being married to Frankie despite knowing all the while that he was gay, and Paul’s embittered reminiscence, for Ilene’s benefit, of the social engineering of family life that Frankie inflicted on him and Sylvia when they were teen-agers. (The legacy of divorce, of reconfigured and expanded and separated families, runs like a thread through the movie.)

The lofty aestheticism of the town and of Frankie’s circle is more than a mark and a privilege of money: it’s a spillover of artists’ work into their lives and surroundings. Money is a tool in the hands of, say, filmmakers (not to mention architects, designers, and musicians) to potentially bring works of public delight and illumination, but it’s also a means for these creators to form private environments that heighten and sharpen the experiences of those who live within their personal sphere. The beauty that Frankie and her entourage find in the settings and outings of Sintra acts on them like a drug—not an intoxicant that lulls them into contented complacency but a kind of truth serum. The ideal of “Frankie” is the lives of artists as creations in and of themselves—which, in turn, effect transfigurations that live on in the lives of others.

At times, the movie is somewhat on the nose, its psychological associations fairly blunt—and, at those times, Sachs’s tableau-like direction seems more to spotlight his intentions than the action. Yet his insistent pictorial sensibility reveals its purpose and its power in a crescendo of visionary wonder, in a matched pair of concluding sequences. In the first, Frankie observes her loved ones making unexpected connections and is, in turn, observed unawares in her lofty restraint. The sequence flows into another, in which (of course) the entire troupe gathers, lined up side by side in an image, simultaneously theatrical and cinematic, of an extraordinary poise and reserve that is filled with lifetimes’ worth of pent-up emotion. It’s one of the most memorable and inspired endings in recent film.

Sourse: newyorker.com

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