Ira Sachs overflows with knowledge about all the great filmmakers known and forgotten — Maurice Pialat, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Eric Rohmer. Sachs’ own kind of slow, patient-to-dissolve cinema belongs exactly in his forebears’ camp, where actors and performance come before style.
But that filmmaking comes with its own challenges, and his latest hasn’t been the easiest ride. Nevertheless, in an interview in Los Angeles last week, Sachs said that with his new film “Frankie,” the film’s tepid reception at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival actually benefited the movie as he came to grips with his specific profile as a filmmaker.
Screen icon Isabelle Huppert shines in the lead role, a woman with terminal cancer who has chosen to spend her final hours assembling friends and family, estranged or not, at a Portuguese villa in the doomed hopes of resolving their individual life crises.
Directed in a static-camera, theatrical style heavy on long takes that Sachs said nods to his experience as a stage director, “Frankie” is a film that takes its time to settle in. Sachs focuses on watching lives come and go in real time, with the characters’ futures left as unknown and open-ended as an ellipsis.
Sachs’ films have received warm Sundance receptions for years, but “Frankie” was his first at Cannes, and it landed in the highly scrutinized Competition section. Upon its premiere in May 2019, reception was mixed amid more ostentatious films in competition such as “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” or Palme d’Or winner “Parasite.” (The film currently hovers at a just-barely-fresh 60% on Rotten Tomatoes, but during the festival, it scored a dismal 1.6 on the Screen jury grid.)
“Frankie” may have been too low-key for Cannes audiences, but at the same time, it didn’t go ignored. Sachs said he was grateful for “the level of capitalism” a high-profile competition slot afforded him.
“It was really useful to the film and to me,” he said. “It was good for the commercial potential of the film. It’s good for sales. If you think of any of the major sales markets as conventions, then to be in them is actually good for your relationship to capitalism. You’ve got a commodity to sell and you’re selling it at the best fashion show.”
Sachs has been making films outside the studio system for more than 20 years, starting with 1996’s “The Delta,” then 2005 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner “Forty Shades of Blue,” followed by the revelatory gay love story “Keep the Lights On” in 2012 — which rendered, in gloves-off detail, the director’s own volatile relationship with his ex, literary agent Bill Clegg. Next came “Love Is Strange” and “Little Men,” which both dealt with the reality of navigating the New York real-estate system in specific, human terms.
He characterizes that work with the defining element of his fascinations as a storyteller. “I think I’m a queer filmmaker. I’m a feminine filmmaker,” Sachs said. “I am not typically masculine in the way that I approach these stories. Sometimes that makes for access, and other times it makes people uncomfortable.”
Sachs’ first film outside of the U.S. came together under unexpected circumstances. French superstar Huppert reached out to him after seeing his 2014 “Little Men,” sending him an email out of the blue. “I was like, ‘Is this real?’” Sachs said. “I would never make a movie with Isabelle in France and I would be very unlikely to make a movie with Isabelle in America because in both places, one of us would be too much of a fish out of water.”
Her interest inspired an idea based on Satyajit Ray’s 1962 film “Kanchenjungha” about a family on vacation in the Himalayan mountains. (Sachs’ 2005 drama “Forty Shades of Blue” was inspired by Ray’s “Charulata.”) “It was a vacation film, and I suddenly realized this would be a good kind of project for us to work together,” Sachs said, “because we would both be away from our home, and have a natural relationship to the story there.”
While “Frankie” is not an explicitly queer film — though any film with “Elle” Oscar nominee Huppert will likely draw that audience — Sachs said his works always nod to that sensibility, especially as queer film and TV audiences remain starved for representation.
“Progress is not always directionally linear,” he said, regarding strides in visibility for LGBTQ characters and stories. “It would be hard to say we’ve moved ahead of Fassbinder, or Visconti, or Akerman.” Despite the interest in Sachs’ work, the financing equation hasn’t gotten much easier. “The economics of queer, particularly cinema, are as, if not more, challenging than ever,” he said.
However, he saw signs of progress in the succes of the FX ballroom culture drama “Pose,” set amid the rising AIDS epidemic. “I’ve been impressed with the reversal of who’s in the center,” he said. “It’s very significant that show is centered on people who are often not seen or marginalized.”
Sachs himself has made some inroads to television with his writing partner Mauricio Zacharias, including a Montgomery Clift biopic and an adaptation of the novel “Christodora.” Both projects failed to materialize. “I think I’m actually not built for TV, and it’s not built for me to the extent that I work better in a more personal process,” Sachs said. “I work collaboratively, but I’m the boss, and when you work in TV, you’re not the boss. Life’s short.”
Despite TV setbacks, Sachs still works on his own terms, and the idiosyncratic, gently lovely “Frankie” demonstrates what’s possible when a filmmaker retains totally free creative expression.
“I feel grateful that I’m at the age I’m making the same exact kinds of movies I was making when I was 27,” he said. “I am making personal films where I get to do what I want to do. That was not ever a given, and it still feels like a personal victory to have found that space. I’m going to stay in my lane.”
“Frankie” opens October 25 from Sony Pictures Classics.