Frankie & Alice is an occasionally lurid 1970s-set psychodrama about a black go-go dancer (Halle Berry) whose past traumas manifest themselves in the form of a white dissociative identity named Alice. Berry isn’t convincing as either persona (it doesn’t help that she’s playing a character half her age), which means that both end up registering as equally false. Inadvertently, this turns the movie’s generic therapy narrative—overcoming the past, learning to manage the present—into the story of a person being pushed to adopt an ill-fitting role because it conforms to the perceptions of others, and Berry’s real-life biracial identity adds an extra-textual layer. The result is an object lesson in how a fundamental flaw can make a movie more interesting, if not necessarily better.
Frankie & Alice fits squarely into the template of the Oliver Sacks-style inspirational case study. The opening scenes follow Frankie around home and work, dropping unsubtle hints about her condition. After a violent episode involving the Alice persona’s racism, Frankie comes to the attention of prototypical good doctor Oswald (Stellan Skarsgård), who attempts to tailor his treatment to Frankie’s problems, to the predictable consternation of his stuffed-shirt colleagues. Oswald’s approach involves building a friendly relationship with both of Frankie’s dominant personas, as well as a third identity, a precocious 7-year-old named “Genius,” who serves as a mediator. Flashback-heavy hypnosis scenes alternate with quasi-comic episodes involving “Alice’s” trips to a country club; regardless of tone, everything is handled in the same overcast, personality-free style, which betrays director Geoffrey Sax’s origins as a British TV veteran.
Throughout, Berry’s fractured performance never comes to resemble shards of a single personality. Instead, each identity plays like a skit role, with the actress relying on broad mannerisms and vocal inflections. Even Frankie—the real identity—feels artificial; her street-tough personality is as cartoony as Alice’s racist, upper-class one. (A whopping eight people are credited for the script, and one wonders how many of them it took to write lines like “What you sayin’ is, I got all these different people living inside me?”) Berry’s performance effectively turns a routine drama to a minor oddity, and Frankie & Alice’s complicated release history further adds to the curio factor. Shot in 2008, the film premiered at Cannes in 2010, scored an unexpected Golden Globes nomination in 2011, and is only now being released in theaters. As such, it ends up playing like a time-capsule of what middlebrow mainstream drama was expected to move like in the 2000s.