Audrey Kupferberg: Frankie | WAMC

Audrey Kupferberg: Frankie

May 27, 2020

FRANKIE is a feature released theatrically a few months ago about a film star who is dying of cancer.  It recently was made available to the home viewing market.  I asked myself, who would think to see a film about a dying person during a pandemic?  My answer was simple.  Many people would, because this movie stars the Oscar-nominated, BAFTA-winning French star Isabelle Huppert who played the lead in Michael Haneke’s THE PIANO TEACHER twenty years ago and in Paul Verhoeven’s suspense film ELLE in 2016.  Furthermore, the producers of ELLE brought us FRANKIE.

But FRANKIE is no ELLE.  ELLE tells a fairly unique story of a successful business woman who is raped by a masked man but does not notify the police and even allows him back into her home, offering a story that keeps the audience on pins and needles.  FRANKIE deals with a much more familiar situation, that of a dysfunctional family that gathers around their dying matriarch.  The viewer knows there is no hope for Frankie, so the film offers a sedentary plotline.  With a couple exceptions, the states of the characters are not much changed from the start of the film till its ending.  Any changes that do occur are not influential to the prognosis of the main character, so they don’t really have much of an impact on the viewer.

Ira Sachs directed and co-wrote FRANKIE.  The most noticeable flaw is in the direction.  Scene after scene consists of two-shots.  There are two people in the shot, awkwardly standing and conversing.  Sometimes Sachs chooses to have his two characters talk while they sit, once in a while as they walk.  This two-shot technique becomes wearisome, especially since the viewer doesn’t have an opportunity to properly get to know these characters.  Also, several of the actors speak English with such strong accents that American viewers may find themselves searching for the subtitles button. 

Two aspects of FRANKIE make watching it worthwhile.  The first is its outstanding cast.  Award-winning actors Isabelle Huppert, Marisa Tomei, Brendan Gleeson, and Greg Kinnear are anything but dull to watch.  Each manages to build a three-dimensional character from the dialog given them.  This must have been difficult to accomplish, given the stiff and stagey direction of Sachs. The second aspect is the film’s setting: FRANKIE was shot on-location in the picturesque historic town of Sintra, Portugal. The quaint and colorful tiling, the picture-perfect beach scenes, the wooded lanes, and the small antiquated buildings of the town are a treat to see and an inducement to visit as part of some future tour. 

Huppert is known for playing women of strong personality, women who have to face challenges.  In FRANKIE, she might have had to play scenes of great emotion where her character is forced to confront the end of life, the failures of her adult years, including a botched marriage and the somewhat unsuccessful mothering of her now adult children.  There are scenes that could have built to crescendos, but the script moves on to the next sequence before the situations can climax.  The film’s story offers the perfect situation for passionate encounters, but the many talkie scenes in FRANKIE exclude passion.  Audience response has been tepid, and I hope Huppert will learn from this experience and return to playing more complex characters in the near future.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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