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Frankie review – like an academic Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The great Isabelle Huppert stars in filmmaker Ira Sachs' handsome but emotionally inert drama about a terminally ill actress

Frankie, the latest from American filmmaker Ira Sachs, first premiered at Cannes 2019, though critics ignored it in favour of the flashier Parasite. That silence belies its commercial flavour. Across one day in Sintra, Portugal, the closest family and friends of a famous French actor, Frankie (Isabelle Huppert, of course), reunite. The luxurious surroundings cause them to find old tensions – financial, emotional, sexual – bubbling to the surface as they come face to face with their matriarch’s mortality.

With a procession of older, recognisable character actors on holiday in Portugal, cavorting and experiencing late gasps of sexual excitement, it mostly comes across like an academic version of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The fructose is in abundance, but Frankie is only intermittently stimulating.

But what stimulation: blistering summer colours, a high sugar blue of the swimming pool, the spray-paint green of the grass. Sachs has enlisted the Portuguese maestro Rui Poças as director of photography, who brings the same refined lenses to his bucolic point of view that characterised Zama and The Ornithologist. With the 1.66: 1 aspect ratio either pushing characters together in the frame or making them seem alienated and alone, Sachs’ collaboration with Poças allows him to take his tender staging to new and expressive heights.

Early on, Sachs draws out the oddity of social graces in a street scene wherein famous actors playing successful filmmakers bump into each other, with more and more characters showing up and introducing themselves. Sachs depicts middle-class lives that often feel very normal. But with Huppert at the centre, how low-key can things stay?

Huppert is one of the great stars because she always commands control over her image. When Gary (Greg Kinnear) compares her to the silent film stars, she deadpans: “Like Greta Garbo… or Fatty Arbuckle.” Her casting as a film star very similar to herself is a wink at audiences familiar with the legendary actor, although Sachs doesn’t find time to properly utilise that power. Instead, he gets wrapped up in an ensemble that he seems intent on keeping apart to build dramatic anticipation.

Vinette Robinson as Sylvia has awkwardly performed confrontations with her daughter. They make jokes about the value of flats in upper or lower Edmonton in lines that sound written by people who have never been to London. Meanwhile, Gary’s attempts to lock down free-spirited hair stylist Marissa Tomei are scuppered in a single scene of Huppertian humiliation. Brendon Gleeson brings his Paddington bear energy to the role of Frankie’s husband Jimmy, whose linen trousers hide a deep sadness. Yet Sachs cuts away before properly getting to the heart of his character in a far too brief scene of Hollywood sensuality between him and Huppert.

Turns from Rohmer stalwart Pascal Greggory and European up-and-comers, including Dardennes mainstay Jérémie Renier and Diamantino’s Carloto Cotta, add some local flavour. With little bite to his depiction of this social milieu, however, Sachs’ drama winds up feeling inert. Despite the existential implications of Frankie’s journey, the accomplished staging, framing, and luscious colours feel affected and emotionally detached. After saying aloud the heretofore silent knowledge that her cancer has returned, she walks alone through a forest, while her ex-husband waits inside a church. It is spiritual, or at least, it mocks cinematic spiritualism. To no end, though, other than sheer aesthetics.

Frankie is released in UK cinemas on 28 May.

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