“Frankie” is a reminder that movies are made of many parts — soundtrack, setting, camerawork, performance, etc. — and that those parts can lift the whole but not by themselves sustain it. Ira Sachs’s muted family drama has locations to make a moviegoer swoon, rich music and cinematography, acting that’s attentive and wise. All that’s missing is a story.
In its place is a situation: A famous French actress, Françoise Crémont (Isabelle Huppert), has summoned friends and relatives to a vacation villa in the tourist town of Sintra, on the Portuguese Riviera. It becomes apparent early on that Frankie doesn’t have long to live and that this is, in effect, her farewell appearance. Most of the family already knows this, and there’s a pensive sense of summing up and settling scores.
In addition, each of the guests has his or her small drama playing out. Stepdaughter Sylvia (the elegant Vinette Robinson) is working up the nerve to leave husband Ian (Ariyon Bakare) and exasperating her own teenage daughter, Maya (Sennia Nanua), who heads to the beach and meets a local boy. Frankie’s businessman son, Paul (Jérémie Renier), still hasn’t settled down with a girlfriend, so his mother hopes to set him up with Ilene (Marisa Tomei), a film-set hairdresser and old friend of the star.
Complication: Ilene arrives with a boyfriend, Gary (Greg Kinnear). Further complication: It’s just dawned on Ilene that Gary is a dud. Hovering around the fringes are Michel (Pascal Greggory), Frankie’s first husband, who has since come out of the closet, and Tiago (Carloto Cotta), a tour guide with his own domestic issues. Right at dead center is Frankie’s third (at least) husband, Jimmy, played with bluff mournfulness by the great Brendan Gleeson.
That’s a fine, fine cast, and Huppert — an acting legend playing an acting legend — strikes the right notes of vanity, wisdom, strength, and self-pity. Faced with the fact of her imminent demise, Frankie is at sea. She no longer has to perform, a state of affairs she finds terribly confusing and also rather interesting.
The secret star of “Frankie” is Sintra itself, an enchanted fairyland of Romanticist palaces, Moorish castles, misty forests, and majestic coastlines, all captured by cinematographer Rui Poças with heart-stopping clarity and attention to color. There are shots here you want to frame — Frankie in red against a background pattern of blue porcelain tiles, for instance — and it may occur to you that the shot’s more compelling than anything happening in it.
This is an Ira Sachs film, and one both literally and figuratively outside his usual beat of New York stories. “Little Men” (2016) viewed gentrification through the eyes of two young boys; “Love Is Strange” (2014) concerned an aging gay couple driven apart by bureaucracy; “Keep the Lights On” (2012) was a haunting tale of romance and codependency. “Frankie” has been co-written with Mauricio Zacharias, Sachs’s longtime partner and collaborator, and for once the duo’s allusive situations and dialogue — and Sachs’s remarkably subtle touch with actors — turns too discreet. Again and again, the film gathers force only to dissipate its momentum by switching to one of the other characters. We never get traction.
That said, there are worse places to get stuck, and Dickon Hinchliffe’s score, paired with contributions by Schubert and Debussy, casts an elegiac haze over “Frankie” that almost substitutes for what the script should be doing. And Sachs ends the film with a long-held long shot, all the characters on a beach, that in itself packs an evocative, deeply emotive punch. It’s a little too late but it’s also surpassingly lovely: an aching frame around the human muddle before we go home for good.
Directed by Ira Sachs. Written by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias. Starring Isabelle Huppert, Marisa Tomei, Brendan Gleeson, Greg Kinnear. At Kendall Square. 98 minutes. PG-13 (brief strong language and some sexual material). In English and French, with subtitles.