There’s a moment in the new film Frankie that is visually stunning, emotionally charged and wordless. I found myself reflecting on my childhood family vacations, and those intimate moments that have stayed with me all these many years. I also thought about my daughters and the family trips we took together; do they have recollections about their time on the road with their parents that have lasted and found a resting place deep within their hearts and memories?
Frankie, the latest movie from acclaimed director Ira Sachs, continues his fascination with families and relationships, but treads new ground as a multi-generational and multi-cultural cast, led by the always amazing Isabelle Huppert in the title role, uproot various levels of intimacy to create a fresh take on vacations, crises and family dynamics.
The drama takes place in central Portugal in the town of Sintra, an idyllic setting that became a character of its own, as audiences explore the area and discover the magic of the community while the characters physically navigate the area, and emotionally navigate their own lives and foibles.
For the director, who recently discussed his latest project with CinéArts, Frankie started as an opportunity to work with the acclaimed actress and seize upon an idea he had been toying with for fifteen years. As he recalled, “When I finished Love is Strange in 2014 I got an email from Isabelle Huppert saying how much she liked the film and that she was interested in discussing the possibility of working together on something. So we began a conversation that lasted over several years.
“And it was only when I decided to make a film about a family on a vacation, a family away from their home, that I felt like I had the right project to work with Isabelle. I would never have had the chutzpah to make a film in France with her, so having the film set in Portugal was perfect!”
Sachs saw a family vacation as a unique opportunity to explore the dynamics of families and those intimate moments that happen which become shared memories. “For me the idea of a family traveling is an interesting way of looking at how people get closer when they don’t have the structure of their everyday life around them. There’s an intimacy that comes through travel because all you have is each other.”
Frankie was inspired by a film Sachs saw and wanted to pay homage to it. “About 15 years ago I saw a film by the Indian director Satyajit Ray called Kanchenjungha from 1961. It was a film about a family on vacation in the Himalayas; there were nine characters and the film took place in one day, from the morning until the late afternoon.
“I loved the structure of that film; it was very emotionally effective by the theatrical quality of the story it told. So that film has been in my head for over a decade and Frankie is an homage to that film and that kind of filmmaking.
“In particular, one of the things I really loved about that film was the way in which nature and landscape became very much a part of the story. So that was certainly the case as we decided to use central Portugal as the location to set this story.”
Indeed, the coastal town of Sintra expands and grows with each new scene and situation. As we get to know more about the characters and their predicaments, the town and its inhabitants are revealed and lend added impact to the scenes. A lonely walk in the woods takes on deeper meaning as the hues of the green trees add emotional depth to the moment. A day at the beach bursts with vibrancy and brightness, much the same as a teen’s first kiss holds surprise and wonderment.
Sachs remembered that finding and scouting out Sintra helped create the foundation for making the movie. “Mauricio Zacharias, my co-writer, and I spent a good amount time there before we started writing the script so when we did start writing we had very particular locations in mind. “The Sintra we constructed did not exist in reality. Our Sintra has three levels: the town, the magical forest, and the top of the mountain, so that is kind of the fictional, narrative thrust of the film. But what we found when we were there and in region, was a great intimacy with Sintra. “I didn’t make a film about Portugal, but rather about the physical experience of being in Sintra. It struck me in a way that I knew was cinematic, emotional, and beautiful, but ultimately I also knew had loss and a kind of emptiness and vastness in the region. All of that was part of the emotion of the film.”
Another key ingredient to making an emotional, intimate film was finding the right group of actors to cast and then coax them gently into bringing out the exact depth needed from the characters. For this Sachs brought in a team he felt could match those specific traits; some of them he had previously worked with, like Marisa Tomei and Greg Kinnear, and some, like Huppert and Brendan Gleeson, who could use their immense talents to add depth and gravitas to their roles.
“Mauricio and I wrote those parts for Greg and Marisa specifically in mind. Once you know an actor you know their voice and you know their strengths and most importantly you know the certain kind of passion they can bring to your dialogue.
“Greg’s character, in a way, didn’t seem human until I imagined Greg playing it, because he’s somewhat dislikeable, if I can say that. But Greg has an incredible way of making the unpleasant familiar and agreeable.
“Marisa, on the other hand, is a whirlwind of a different kind of energy. And I loved the idea of the contrast between Isabelle and Marisa, but also the potential for intimacy because they play best friends. In many ways this film is about their friendship and where you can imagine the future taking it.
“And Brendan Gleeson, I think he’s one of the great actors working today. I almost cast him in a movie I did in 2005 called Forty Shades of Blue. Ultimately Rip Torn did the film, but I had been talking to Brendan about the role. He had been on my mind since I saw him in The General.”
For the director, casting an actor is a leap of faith to ensure the film benefits in the best way possible. So for that reason Sachs looks at casting a bit differently. “I generally feel that I cast people, not actors, and their way of being on screen. I have to kind of imagine that if they were all together, creating this unified cast, it would be seamless.”
Sachs feels like he hit the right chord with this group, which brought out nuances in the film he hoped could be seen and felt. “This is one the strongest casts I have ever worked with. It’s a heightened situation in this film with a crisis that’s brought the family together.
“The movie starts out in this idyllic place but everyone seems to have a lot at stake. And these actors are able to convey that very organically. They also have a good sense of comedy; who know that within the tragic there is always the reverse: the absurd or the petty. I think these actors can play these types of variations very naturally.”
A perfect example was the titular character of Frankie. Isabelle Huppert’s performance is balanced and understated, while keeping the emotional battles under the surface enough to let the audience see their presence, but not their impact on her, her family or her demeanor. Credit the director allowing his actors to approach their scenes with honesty and their real selves. “Actors are extraordinary, but what I ask them to do is to almost be comfortable with revealing as much of themselves as possible.
“For instance, I think that by getting to know Isabelle I was able to encourage her to be different than the woman I had known on the screen from her movies. I wanted her to bring as much of herself to the part as possible. Like with John Lithgow, with whom I worked with on Love is Strange, I wanted them to get to everything as it was written in the script, but as if it was always for the first time. So In a way I’m asking actors to do less and less because the camera can so beautifully reveal all of those moments and emotions that go unnoticed.”
That kind of intimacy and unobstructed views into one’s character and motivations is doubly impressive when you consider that the family dynamic is in play. Emotions are held on the sleeve and people’s happiness are at stake, so Sachs’ ability to navigate all of these comes from a level of confidence that can only be gained by personal experience. “I think that was both the challenge and pleasure of this film, finding the balance between all of the different stories, and the idea that nothing in a family happens in a vacuum.
“Illness occurs in the context of life and in death; young people come in contact with the very old, and other contrasts which the film plays with I feel reflect my own experience of being in a family. The film also came out a period in which I was close to illness and death in a way that I had never experienced. I was shocked at the unexpected contradictions that occurred during those periods when the deepest things would happen at the same time as the most mundane. So I hope this tension between the tragic and the comic is realized in the film.”
Sachs’ atypical technique with actors also worked with great effect to create the atmosphere of the movie, not just the physical one seen on screen, but the perceived one felt as actors and nature intertwined.
“On Frankie I worked with a wonderful Portuguese cinematographer Rui Poças and somewhere in our process we started watching Éric Rohmer films, particularly Pauline at the Beach and Claire’s Knee. We noticed and were drawn to these films because we ourselves were making a film about people walking and talking through nature.
“What we noticed was a certain shooting style, not just in Rohmer’s films, but in a lot of movies from the 1950’s to the 70’s, which allowed the actors to always be present; to not try to hide the fact that you’re watching people act. Also you’re giving the actors nothing to hide in; this film takes place in daylight and there are few cuts in the movie, so you’re always attentive to the beauty of the performance. It’s not constructed and for me that creates an intimacy with both the characters and the actors.”
Which brings us to the final scene of the movie, the one I alluded to in the first paragraph. Without giving it away, it’s one of the most poignant and powerful endings I’ve seen in a while. For the director, it’s a perfect representation of the movie-making experience as a whole. “Frankie was a contrast between a lot of planning and what nature gave us on the day. In a way that’s the theme of the film, how we try to construct our lives but there are always these larger forces that come into play, like a sunset, a windstorm or death.
“So that scene was representative of the entire shoot as I was trying to not resist what nature was telling me. On that day Rui could perceive before it happened that there would be a very particular effect. Then we had to scramble to catch that moment!”
So whether the intimacy of Frankie is between characters, the director and his actors, or the movie and the audience, Ira Sachs hopes that the film can be an opportunity to take a look at those moments that make families what they are: fleeting, profound and memorable. “I am aware that there is a theatrical nature to Frankie with a lot of comings and goings; there was enter stage left and exit stage right, with nine characters. This film tries to share an intimacy of those characters with the audience that hopefully brings them to an understanding of one family, and maybe their own.
“I think Frankie is in a lot of ways an expression of my own experience around grief and also around love. Those two things are at the heart of what the film has to offer.”
Unfolding over the course of a late summer’s day in the fabled resort town of Sintra, Portugal, Frankie follows three generations who have gathered for a vacation organized by the family matriarch (Isabelle Huppert).
In this fairy tale setting, husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and lovers, stirred by their romantic impulses — discover the cracks between them, as well as unexpected depth of feeling.
Frankie stars Isabelle Huppert, Brendan Gleeson, Marisa Tomei, and Greg Kinnear.