The first shot in “Frankie,” Ira Sachs’s new film, is an almost painterly study in color, like something by Hockney or Cézanne. The blue of a swimming pool, a spray of dense green foliage shrouding the creamy stones of the building (villa? hotel?) from which a woman emerges, her orange robe matching the tint of her hair. Leisure and languor, with a hint of intrigue, all of it beautifully rendered in Rui Poças’s mellow cinematography. Why set a movie in paradise unless you’re going to bring in some trouble?
This beautiful spot — almost as charismatic as Isabelle Huppert, who plays the title character, a French actress — is in Sintra, a picturesque town near the coast of Portugal. A nearby beach has a name that alludes to the expulsion from Eden, so a suggestion of sin hangs in the air amid the churches and cafes. It’s part of the touristic atmosphere.
The vacation that Frankie and her extended family are taking together has its own melancholy vibe. She’s dying — with the delicate radiance that only a movie star can bring to the task — and has summoned a husband, an ex-husband, a son, a stepdaughter and a close friend to join her for a few days of somber recreation. All these people have troubles of their own, and those compete with Frankie’s slightly inscrutable moods.
Her husband, Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson), is miserable at the prospect of losing her. His predecessor, Michel (Pascal Greggory), is sympathetic. Jimmy’s daughter, Sylvia (Vinette Robinson), is preparing to leave her husband, Ian (Ariyon Bakare). Their daughter, Maya (Sennia Nanua), meets a handsome Portuguese boy on her way to the beach. Frankie’s friend Ilene (Marisa Tomei) has arrived with her lover, Gary (Greg Kinnear), who wants their relationship to become more serious. Frankie, though, wants to fix Ilene up with her mopey son, Paul (Jérémie Renier).
All of this business has comic potential, or it would if Sachs were inclined to play it that way. His intentions seem more novelistic, as he stitches together minor-key vignettes on muffled emotions. Regret, longing, disappointment, ennui.
To complain that it isn’t much fun might be to miss the point, or to repeat Frankie’s fundamental mistake, which is to expect pleasure to coexist with grief. But “Frankie” doesn’t summon much in the way of pathos either. Sachs is a disciplined anti-melodramatist, who at his best (in “Love Is Strange” and “Keep the Lights On,” for my money) can turn emotional reserve into its own kind of intensity. This time, though, the undercurrents of feeling are too faint to register much at all.
“Frankie” feels less like a project that went astray than like one that was left unfinished. A cast of excellent actors stand around looking tentative, delivering stilted lines in scenery whose beauty is perhaps meant to take up the expressive slack. Huppert’s uncanny mixture of self-possession and wildness is never not interesting to watch, but when Frankie is off screen she takes the film’s life force with her. You can understand how everyone will miss her when she’s gone, but at the same time you can’t be too sorry that she’ll be free of these dull, dreary people.
Rated PG-13. Sex and death, mildly. In English, French and Portuguese, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes.
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A.O. Scott is the co-chief film critic. He joined The Times in 2000 and has written for the Book Review and The New York Times Magazine. He is also the author of “Better Living Through Criticism.” @aoscott
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