Isabelle Huppert as Frankie

Having made films with more than a hint of the French about them – character driven, focused on metropolitan angst, loose, semi-improvised acting style, unafraid to let nothing happen – Ira Sachs finally gets almost all of the way there with Frankie, a drama set in Portugal but with plenty of French speakers in his cast.

Patrice Chéreau’s 1998 drama Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (Ceux Qui M’aiment Prendront le Train) is a close analogue, though here the central figure around which everything spins is still alive. She’s played by Isabelle Huppert as Françoise (aka Frankie), a famous actress who has called all her family together in Sintra, Portugal, for some yet-to-be-explained reason, though it isn’t hard to guess what it might be.

Pascal Greggory plays Frankie’s first husband and Sachs uses him more as a lucky charm – he was in Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train – than as an important character. As Michel, now a happily out gay man, he’s part of Frankie’s extended and blended family, including her second husband Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson), her son Paul (Jérémie Renier), Jimmy’s daughter Sylvia (Vinette Robinson), Sylvia’s husband Ian (Ariyon Bakare) and their daughter Maya (Sennia Nanua).

Floating around the edges is Frankie’s old friend Ilene (Marisa Tomei) and her on/off boyfriend Gary (Greg Kinnear) both of whom, we are told more often than seems necessary, are in Europe working on the latest Star Wars movie.

Relationships in various states of decay is Sachs’s abiding concern and they’re what gives this drama what little tension it has… eventually. Though everything constellates around Frankie, at the edges Paul is lovelorn, Sylvia and Ian’s marriage is in tatters, Gary is like a bull at a gate with the unconvinced Ilene, and young Maya is off at the beach, where a lusty local is giving her her first taste of the thing that’s causing most everyone else such grief. Frankie and Jimmy, meanwhile, are blissfully happy. But even there Sachs (and regular co-writer Mauricio Zacharias) does eventually raise a little question mark.

Marisa Tomei and Isabelle Huppert
Ilene and Frankie

Having been a fan of Sachs’s films since I first saw 2005’s Forty Shades of Blue, I wanted Frankie to work but it didn’t, or not often enough. Too many scenes felt awkward, as if improvisation as a guiding principle had just been taken too far, when what was really needed was for someone to shout “cut”, offer some notes to struggling actors and then go again. Quite why all the characters so often needed to shout was a mystery too.

That said, there are some fabulous moments that do just work – Huppert and Gleeson just sitting down at a piano together, saying barely a word, the long-delayed moment when Tomei’s Ilene and Renier’s Paul finally meet, for what the matchmaking Frankie is hoping will be the beginning of a love affair.

These moments come mostly towards the end. While Sachs is simultaneously wrapping up and suggesting that life goes on, the drama suddenly takes wing, almost as if on its own, in a couple of scenes notable for what’s not said rather than what is.

Huppert glides through the whole thing, partly because her character, Frankie, is one of those blithe spirits, partly because Huppert tends to glide, and partly because there really isn’t a whole lot of stuff going on, apart from the BIG THING, which is barely mentioned, and I won’t mention either.

A failure, but an interesting failure. Watch it to see actors you wouldn’t expect to see together – Kinnear and Huppert, for example – and to see sun-drenched Sintra, a town that looks busy and buzzy with tourists, with people enjoying themselves. There isn’t much of that going on with Frankie and her brood.

Frankie – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

White Elephant

Fathers Julián and Nicolás patrol the shanty

London Film Festival, 2012-10-21

At a certain point in the career of a successful film-maker who isn’t working in the English language, you expect him or her to make a “breakout” film, the one that gets them noticed in the global multiplexes, the one that makes them some money. At this point in the career of Pablo Trapero, the Argentinean who gave us Familia Rodante, Lion’s Den and Carancho – all critical hits – you’s expect White Elephant to be that film. It isn’t. But that doesn’t mean it’s a disappointment. Quite the contrary.

Instead of taking the money and selling out, Trapero has taken what budget his status as a film-maker now entitles him to and he’s put it up on the screen. White Elephant is a big film aimed squarely at the domestic Argentinean market. It addresses Argentinean problems, though with a universality that means it translates. Does it top Carancho as his best film? I don’t know. But it is by a long way his most ambitious.

An epic drama set in the shantytown of Buenos Aires, it has a big cast, a wide geographical field of operations and mighty themes. It kicks off with two scenes that use immense sound – in one a man is in an MRI scanner as it clicks and bangs away. Scene two cuts to a boat growling ominously as it heads up river. And in comes Michael Nyman’s soundtrack, a beautiful plaintive Morricone-esqe thing faintly tinged with the mournfulness of the brass band.

White Elephant has proper actors too. If you’ve seen Carancho (and if you haven’t then you’ve missed an amazingly flavourful piece of South American noir), you’ll be familiar with Ricardo Darín and Martina Gusman, its stars. They’re back here, Darín playing a kind hard-headed priest working the shantytown that surrounds the abandoned hospital (the white elephant of the title) sitting like a metaphor for the stalled social projects of Argentina’s recent decades. Helping him in his Spencer Tracey efforts to house the homeless and wrest the drugs from the skull-faced youth is Luciana, a local volunteer (Gusman), a woman as selfless as she is beautiful.

Nicolás and Luciana
Nicolás and Luciana

Into the world of Father Julián and Luciana enters Father Nicolás (Jeremie Renier), a refugee from the up-river village we’ve seen wiped out by banditos. He’s in a state of shock, angry, confused, aware of the fact that Darín’s way, the Lord’s way, of turning the other cheek has just resulted in the extermination of an entire village of his flock.

And around these three the whole film turns – Father Julián the pragmatist, Father Nicolás the hothead, Luciana caught between the two. It makes for a brilliant recruiting campaign for the Catholic church, the selflessness, the fixity of purpose, the fighting of the good fight even when doubt is stalking the alleyways. “It’s easy to be a martyr and a hero,” says Julián to Nicolás at one point. “The hardest thing is working day after day, knowing your work is meaningless.”

Don’t worry, this isn’t a film full of speeches like that. Instead Trapero gives us beautifully composed shots and scenes, bravura camerawork à la Scorsese (one tracking shot into a meth lab is straight out of Goodfellas). This is a good-looking film. And just to make sure we don’t get bored while the film expatiates on the nature of faith, goodness, religion (both official and magical), Trapero takes us ever further into the heart of the slums, all the while building on plot arcs straight out of Douglas Sirk. Julián is dying of some brain malignancy, we have learned early on. Nicolás, a young good looking man of Daniel Craig aspect, is increasingly tempted by the ravishing Luciana. Secrets. Melodrama.

And to top all that Trapero gives us the big finish that the film has by stealth been working towards – the budget spent on catching a conflagration in the slums that looks so naturalistic that it must have been shot at some demonstration that got out of hand, surely?

A slow-burner, White Elephant takes its times working up an impressive head of dramatic steam, examining faith and duty as it goes in an unusually non-snide (though not naïve) way. Put another way – how refreshing it is to meet priests in a movie who aren’t either exorcists or kiddy-fiddlers.

White Elephant – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2012