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Isabelle Huppert Bids Life Farewell in 'Frankie'

The brilliant French actress plays a dying woman on her last family vacation in Portugal

Rating: PG-13

Run time: 1 hour 40 minutes

Stars: Brendan Gleeson, Isabelle Huppert, Greg Kinnear, Marisa Tomei  

Director: Ira Sachs

En español | Warning: This movie is so gorgeous it could make you upend your whole life and move to the mountainous resort of Sintra on the Portuguese Riviera, where you can wander fairy-tale streets and woods with exquisite vistas forever, and bask on a strand named Apple Beach, after the fruit that tempted Eve to sin.

The beautiful woman ruling this vacation paradise is a famous actress, Françoise “Frankie” Crémont (Isabelle Huppert, 66), who has a fatal disease — the only-in-the-movies kind that leaves the doomed one looking as sensational as the age-proof Isabelle Huppert. The part was written for Huppert, and her character has all the quietly mirthful hauteur, droll wit, wistfulness, remoteness and quicksilver emotions we associate with the actress (whom historian David Thomson offers as proof that “as women grow older, they become more interesting”).

When Frankie doffs her top for a swim in a pool and is told there are camera-toting tourists around, she says, “That’s all right, I’m very photogenic.” When someone compliments her maturity, she says, “Don’t say ‘mature,’ I hate that word! It’s offensive to a woman.” Unruffled that she has perhaps weeks to live, Frankie has arranged for herself a final reunion of her circle: her doting husband, Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson, 64), who cries himself to sleep each night in her arms, Jimmy’s daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter, and Frankie’s gay first husband (all actors you never heard of, in utterly superfluous parts that go nowhere), and Frankie’s perky old movie makeup artist friend Ilene (Marisa Tomei, 54), whom Frankie wants to fix up with her peevish, ne’er-do-well son (Jérémie Renier).

But the makeup artist spoils Frankie’s plan by bringing along her boyfriend, the second-unit cinematographer on a Star Wars movie (Greg Kinnear, 56). When he pitches Frankie to star in his first feature film, she doesn’t openly refuse, she just hints at her disdain for him, with an attitude as delicately cool as frost tendrils forming on a winter windowpane. The characters don’t really clash, they stroll around against stunning backdrops conducting conversations that sound like a B-minus screenwriting student imitating director Eric Rohmer or Ethan Hawke’s After Sunset movies.

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Huppert can make this elliptical style sing, but most of the actors can’t, and whenever she’s out of the scene it’s like the sun went behind a cloud. Jimmy’s daughter plans to divorce her husband, but the movie doesn’t bother to make us understand why, nor why we care about two such cold fish. The granddaughter has the dullest first kiss in cinema history with a local kid she meets on a train.

But the drifty dialogue and wispy plot snap into focus when Huppert cuddles and reminisces with Jimmy, or confronts her son, or chats girl-to-girl with Tomei’s Ilene. Ilene comes alive when she’s with Frankie — Tomei and Huppert have excellent chemistry — but her relationship with Kinnear’s Star Wars guy is so terminally vague that when he gives her a ring and she asks if it’s a marriage proposal, he says he hadn’t thought it was but why not? And Ilene basically says, “Yeah, whatever,” and they wind up not marrying — with neither showing much emotion about the decision.

It’s a movie allergic to story, motive, character development and overt drama, playing like Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool minus the thriller plot. Yet it often is thrilling, thanks to the mystery and magnetism of the tiny, titanic actress it’s built around and the stupefying beauty of its setting. It leaves you with an autumnal glow, like a lingering seaside sunset.

And before I die, I plan to go to Sintra, Portugal, and soak up all the sun I can while I can.

AARP critic Tim Appelo was Amazon’s entertainment editor and a critic for The NationHollywood ReporterEWPeopleMTVLA WeeklyNew York Times, and Los Angeles Times.

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