American independent director Ira Sachs (Married Life, Love Is Strange) has always made films that feel European — in their scope, in their intimacy, in their concerns — even if the themes have, by and large, been very American. With Frankie, Sachs splits the difference and makes a film in Europe with a mostly European cast. Isabelle Huppert plays the titular Frankie, a French actress who invites her extended family (including her husband, played by Brendan Gleeson, her grown son, played by Jérémie Renier and daughter Sylvia, played by Vinette Anderson, but also her first husband and an American friend played by Marisa Tomei, who shows up with boyfriend Greg Kinnear) to Portugal. Frankie knows that she’s dying, but some of her family does not, which means they spend the majority of the film arguing and sniping about much less important things — while others freeze up at the idea of her impending death.
Sachs has been very vocal in his promotion of the film: Frankie was written for Isabelle Huppert.
“We already had known each other for some time,” says Huppert. “We had already agreed that we were going to work together and I knew he was writing this movie for me. So I did read it having this information, but I had no idea what he was going to write. I knew nothing of it. It was a surprise when I read it! (…) As Ira says, ‘we started a conversation.’ We spoke, we spent time together… I imagine it happens once in a while, but even if someone says they wrote it for me, it doesn’t mean it’s good or I want to do it! It gives me no assurance of quality!”
It’s tempting, then, to see Frankie as Sachs’s version of Huppert — she certainly did at first.
“I was surprised, because this morning I did an interview alongside Ira and he said, ‘Frankie is less famous than Isabelle!’ and I thought, ‘Oh, really?!’ (laughs),” she says. “It’s true that the character in the film seems more famous for her television work, which isn’t something that we associate with Huppert. “I haven’t had to do much TV yet, although I am in one episode of Matthew Weiner’s The Romanoffs. It’s my only incursion in the world of TV for now — but that doesn’t mean I won’t do TV, because everyone does TV now. It stays a little vague — I say at one point that I’ve made two movies in the last year, one in France and one in England — but it isn’t very clear what kind of actress she is. She’s a known actress, for sure.”
For an ensemble piece about a person who’s dying, Frankie is staunchly committed to avoiding all forms of melodrama, a staple in the works of Ira Sachs. The style is extremely-pared down — the camera barely moves, and when it does, it’s mainly to follow the movement of the characters.
“The camera doesn’t move much, but that’s what makes it so strong,” says Huppert. “It captures everything without getting in the way. It’s a bit like Japanese cinema — he places the camera and he captures even the most minute of variations. That’s very pleasant to do as an actor, because he doesn’t constantly move it around to cut in or have close-ups. It helps us feel everything because the rhythm of each scene belongs to us. The actor is very free and can use their imagination freely. (…) It’s never distracting. It’s a very fluid and intelligent camera. Ira is a great director in that respect, because you forget the camera entirely. It’s tempting to compare with certain Japanese films that have that capacity of making you forget the camera. On the other hand, you know, there are directors with more mobile camera styles who are also great directors. In any case, for the topics that Ira chooses to shoot, he feels he doesn’t need to be more present as a director than he already is.”
The result is a rather strange beast: not quite a comedy, certainly not a drama, and a film that has an extremely even keel. Such an even keel, in fact, that it seems to have alienated certain viewers at Cannes — but worked much better in Toronto.
“He didn’t want to make a melodrama — it’s not La dame aux camélias!” she continues. “Actually, it kind of is La dame aux camélias, because she knows she’s dying, but it’s not a melodrama. It’s not a sentimental film. His point of view is entirely original. I feel like the character of Frankie is the director of the movie’s narrative — she wants to control things, she wants to direct the people around her. It doesn’t always work how she wants it. It turns into a bit of a vaudeville, like when she wants to set up her friend with her son but it’s starting to look like she might be more into her husband!
“There’s a comedic aspect to that structure. I love the way Ira mixes the tragic and comic. It really hit me yesterday, when we screened the film here at TIFF — people laughed a lot, and we weren’t really expecting that. One of the strengths of his writing is how funny his sad movies can be — like Chekhov, like Euripides… I should know, because I played Euripides! I think that the way he shoots completely matches his writing, in fact. In the writing, people say completely terrible things… and yet, in actuality, they seem less terrible. He makes it feel like he might be glossing over something, but at the same time, if you pay attention, it can be pretty intense.” ■
Frankie opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Nov. 15. Watch the trailer here: