Frankie: Permanent Vacation, by David Bax
Ira Sachs made a splash in 2012 with Keep the Lights On, a harrowing account of love mired in addiction that bowled me over but didn’t exactly leave me eager to watch it again, so consistently raw and upsetting are its contents. So it’s been kind of a surprise to me that his two subsequent films, 2014’s Love Is Strange and 2016’s Little Men, have been, if not exactly comedies, at least amiable dramas, still concerned with deeply human topics but thoroughly pleasant to watch. This trend continues with Frankie, a mostly genial hang-out movie that’s largely an ensemble piece but with its cast of characters revolving around one dominant individual played by one of our greatest living actors.
Isabelle Huppert is Françoise “Frankie” Crémont, a world-renowned movie star who has gathered her family for an idyllic vacation in Sintra, Portugal so that they may spend some cheerful time together before her terminal illness takes over her life. But with personalities and histories as complicated as those of daughter Sylvia (Vinette Robinson), son-in-law Ian (Ariyon Bakare), granddaughter Maya (Sennia Nanua), son Paul (Jérémie Renier), husband Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson) and ex-husband Michel (Pascal Greggory), plus her close friend Ilene (Marisa Tomei) and Ilene’s boyfriend Gary (Greg Kinnear), things aren’t likely to be as peaceful as planned.
To our continued benefit, Sachs has never been stylistically showy. He favors inconspicuously symmetrical medium shots but with a seemingly instinctual aptitude. Every shot in Frankie is no more or less than perfectly in service of the whole film.
Sach’s aesthetic conservatism, however, does not mean that he overlooks the natural beauty of his location. The verdant, ancient Sintra envelops both mountaintops and beaches and Sachs endeavors to show you as much of it as he can. He also, crucially, lets you hear it. Even in tense or sad conversations he juxtaposes the psychological interiority of the drama with the sounds of birds and insects and wind and waves.
It’s Huppert, though, who is Frankie’s true force of nature. In recent years, as she’s reached her mid-60s, directors like Mia Hansen-Løve (Things to Come), Paul Verhoeven (Elle) and Michael Haneke (Happy End) have becomes increasingly fascinated with her glowering formidability inside a tiny, seemingly frail frame. Add Sachs to that list. Despite her stature, Frankie towers over her entire family; even in scenes she’s not in, it feels as though she’s eavesdropping.
Amidst the travelogue and the heavy conversations about love and death, Frankie is also, finally, an empathetic distillation of what it means to go on vacation with your family. Being in a strange place makes you, in essence, alone together. It exaggerates your problems—arguments are common in these circumstances—but it also highlights your connection to each other. For better or worse, these have always been and will always be the people in whom you seek solace. At least until they’re not there anymore.