clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

‘Frankie’: Isabelle Huppert a marvel in a family drama that’s scenic but seldom authentic

The dialogue of relatives reunited in Portugal seems overwritten.

Isabelle Huppert (right) plays the title character in “Frankie,” a renowned actress who brings her friend (Marisa Tomei) along for a meeting of her family.
Sony Pictures Classics

The legendary French actress Isabelle Huppert is an international treasure who has graced the screen with her unique presence in more than 100 films over the last half-century, and she is by far the best thing as the title character in the generational family drama “Frankie.”

When a chilly, denim-clad Huppert accepts a fuchsia-colored scarf from a friend and casually wraps it around her neck, she suddenly looks more regal than a queen at a coronation. When she quietly directs her grown children to stop bickering, they instantly clam up like 7-year-olds, because their beloved and effortlessly moment-commanding mother has spoken, and you do not want to disappoint Mother. When she tenderly kisses her husband on the forehead before exiting the room, we can feel the power of her love and appreciation for him.

She’s magnificent.

Alas, as whole, “Frankie” plays like one of Woody Allen’s lesser, European-set films.

The setting of Sintra, Portugal, makes for breathtaking visuals, and we welcome the stellar cast of familiar faces — but the dialogue, while sophisticated and occasionally witty, often comes across as so “written,” so staged, we can practically see the words on the page as the actors deliver their lines. Even the blocking of certain characters in key scenes, including the finale, seems forced and draws too much attention to itself. There’s a veneer of artifice coating the proceedings.

In a role obviously perfect for her, Huppert plays Francoise aka Frankie, a renowned and world-famous (and quite pleased with herself) actress. Frankie has slowed down her career in recent years, in large part due to health problems. When faced with the certainty she will not get better, Frankie has gathered her extended family (and one close friend) for a reunion in historic and fabled and picturesque Sintra.

Brendan Gleeson gives a touching performance as Frankie’s second husband, Jimmy, a lovely bear of a man who can barely get through the day or even take a breath without becoming overwhelmed with sadness at the prospect of losing Frankie. Jeremie Renier is Frankie’s handsome, petulant , lifelong disappointment of a son, Paul, and Vinette Robinson is Frankie’s daughter Sylvia, who is Paul’s stepsister. (Frankie has lived a long and complicated and rich life.)

The scenes between Gleeson and Huppert are rendered in muted tones and are sweet and effective. Subplots involving Sylvia and Paul are flat and uninteresting.

Then there’s Marisa Tomei’s Ilene, who worked as a hairdresser on one of Frankie’s films and became her close friend, or so we’re told — but nothing about their time together convinces us the reserved, borderline snobby and sophisticated Frankie would be so enamored with Ilene, who’s kind of all over the place and scattered with her thinking.

Even less involving is the story of Ilene’s relationship with Greg Kinnear’s Gary, a cinematographer who is working as a second-unit director “on the new ‘Star Wars’ film” shooting nearby and is forever prattling on about how he’s finally ready to direct a feature film.

He comes across as a guy who couldn’t successfully direct traffic.