PHOTOGRAPHY BY DUARTE DRAGO
Isabelle Huppert gets top billing in the family dramedy Frankie (in theaters now), but the Portuguese landscape steals just about every scene. Director Ira Sachs drew inspiration from the 1962 multigenerational travel-ogue Kanchenjungha, but he transports his cinematic clan from the Himalayas to an equally mystical (and misty) locale: Sintra, a mountain village set in the shadow of a fairy-tale castle, about 30 minutes from Lisbon.
“I cast Sintra first,” Sachs says, before conceding, “I might have cast Isabelle Huppert first and Sintra second.” When cowriter Mauricio Zacharias pitched the location, Sachs realized he had visited with his family 40 years prior. “I remembered the area, but it was all nostalgic,” says the director, who subsequently went on a scouting trip to reacquaint himself. “We discovered a place that was so evocative, both visually and emotionally.”
In the film, Huppert plays Frankie, an actress who gathers her family and friends for a last-hurrah trip after she’s diagnosed with terminal cancer. Over the course of a single day, the group scatters throughout Sintra, exploring spots like the Praia das Maçãs (Beach of the Apples), the Peninha sanctuary, and the Santa Eufémia hermitage.
In one of the first scenes, Frankie’s husband (Brendan Gleeson) stops at the Fonte da Pipa. Though a fountain has existed here since the 1300s, its current form—with a barrel-shaped spout and azulejo tiles that depict the surrounding forests and the Roman goddesses Diana and Justice—dates to 1787. Nearby, local guide Tiago (Carloto Cotta) explains that unmarried women once took its waters in the hope of finding a husband. A few scenes later, Frankie’s hair stylist, Ilene (Marisa Tomei, pictured), arrives and takes a sip. The scene may feel unimportant, but it sets up a key subplot: Who will she marry? What follows is, in part, a subdued spin on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which romantic pairs couple and uncouple. “It’s a film about family and life and illness and death, but it’s also a marriage comedy,” Sachs says. “And the fountain is where that comedy begins.”
As for the legend of the fountain? “We are writing our own mythology in the film,” Sachs says, with a laugh. “There is a story about a fountain which young women would come to for something magical—but it’s not that one!”