Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Slipping into town this weekend (at the Meridian, apparently) is Ira Sachs’s new film, Frankie. It’s a well-measured character-and-place piece, in which a famous actress, played by Isabelle Huppert, gathers her family together for a group farewell; she’s dying. The place is Sintra, Portugal, which lends its lovely gardens and old courtyards as an extremely evocative backdrop—though more than a backdrop, surely.
Sachs uses the location not as a realistic setting—you can’t tell how the little streets fit together, or how the forest comes close to the town—but as almost abstract spaces for final negotiations to play out. In that sense, the mist in the woods or the little fountain in a plaza take on a significance beyond their realistic presence. These are places, natural or man-made, that Huppert’s character moves through for a last look ’round.
The setting is somewhat more compelling than what the screenplay offers; it’s hard to tell whether some of the film is improvised, although it feels that way. Sachs uses long takes to allow the characters to sort through the little issues of life, and a few big ones. Some nice people here: Brendan Gleeson (as Huppert’s husband—that’s one talented red-haired marriage), Marisa Tomei, Pascal Greggory, Jeremie Renier, Vinette Robinson, Greg Kinnear. The conversation scenes have a curious slackness at times, as though the movie is searching, as it goes along, for the right beat.
This appears to be Sachs’s Eric Rohmer movie—there’s even an echo of Le Rayon Vert in one important, and beautiful, sequence. It doesn’t hit that level, but it’s another graceful, civilized film by a director whose recent work (Little Men, Love Is Strange) saw him really hitting a confident groove.
I have long admired Sachs’s offbeat work, which can be found securely on the shelves at Scarecrow Video. His 2007 film Married Life is a hugely unusual film, for instance, a brightly-lit neo-noir with Chris Cooper planning to kill wife Patricia Clarkson because he’s besotted with Rachel McAdams; but his motivations for murder include his notion that the wife is mainly interested in sex and lacks the soulfulness of his mistress, and anyway murder will be a mercy to the wife, who won’t be able to handle a divorce. Plus: Pierce Brosnan as Cooper’s wry best friend.
Here’s my review of Sachs’s wonderful 2005 film Forty Shades of Blue, which gave Rip Torn one of his best roles.
Forty Shades of Blue
It’s the winner of a Grand Jury Prize from the Sundance Film Festival, but there’s nothing grand about Forty Shades of Blue. This movie is as small and sneaky as a faintly-heard blues melody in the night air.
The story is set in Memphis, one of the great music cities, where a cantankerous, aging songwriter/producer/musician receives a lifetime achievement award. Alan James (Rip Torn) has a career that stretches back to the birth of rock and roll, and he knows his place of prestige. Knows it so well that he can throw tantrums and enjoy one-night flings under the nose of his patient companion.
This ladyfriend is Laura (Dina Korzun), a Russian woman Alan met in Moscow during a tour. She has given him a three-year-old son and a modicum of organization in his life—plus the good looks of a willowy, strawberry-blond trophy wife.
She’s our point-of-view in the movie. Laura drifts through her life in Memphis, separated from her husband by his unpredictable behavior and separated from the world by her uncertain command of English and American customs. A crisis arrives in the form of Alan’s older son Michael (Darren Burrows), a would-be writer and embittered teacher. Alan’s been a lousy father to Michael, and Michael doesn’t let him forget it. His own marriage is falling apart, and Michael and Laura can’t help but be intrigued by each other.
This has the sound of a conventional melodrama—the son sleeping with the father’s girlfriend. But Forty Shades is not conventional in any way. The movie floats along like a daydream inside Laura’s head, losing its momentum, pausing for asides and glances. And music.
The soundtrack is filled with R&B and country songs that bespeak Memphis. Without looking like a travelogue, the film really feels rooted in Memphis; it even has notorious Elvis crony Red West in a recurring role.
Forty Shades makes a fascinating comparison to another Memphis music film that came out this year, Hustle & Flow. That movie went for the dynamic propulsion of Crunk music, while this one goes sad and slow.
Rip Torn gives a marvelous performance, somehow conveying childlike helplessness and affection along with the selfishness. The character could be a descendent of a country singer Torn played in the 1970s in the movie Payday. Credit, too, to Dina Korzun and Darren Burrows (he was the geeky teenager on Northern Exposure, now reborn as a grave, haunted grown-up).
Director (and Memphis native) Ira Sachs seems inspired by the movies of Robert Altman; there’s an improvised feeling to some scenes in this one. It’s a film that will divide people—I have no doubt some with find it boring—but its sleepy rhythm caught me up, and the music kills.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.