Francine: Berlin Film Review
Melissa Leo stars in an unsentimental portrait of an ex-convict unable to connect outside of prison.
BERLIN – A minimalist, image-based character study that is almost impossibly fragile and yet emotionally robust, Francine is a legitimate discovery. It’s propelled by Melissa Leo’s remarkable title-role performance, rigorous in its honesty and unimpeded by even a scrap of vanity. Made on a shoestring, this first narrative feature from husband-and-wife filmmaking team Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky is raw, intimate and observed with penetrating acuity.
The austere approach and stark naturalism invite comparison with the work of Kelly Reichardt, and the subject specifically recalls Wendy and Lucy. (Producers Joshua Blum and Kate Stern have both worked with Reichardt.) The earliest films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne also come to mind while watching. But Cassidy and Shatzky, whose backgrounds are jointly in photography and documentary, have their own voice and their own nonjudgmental gaze.
As a window into a life of seemingly irreversible dissociation, the film performs the uncommon trick of being wide open and pellucid while simultaneously shut tight and opaque. One of the interesting aspects of Francine is that despite the unsettling intimacy of the portrait, only sparing use is made of facial closeups – the usual short-cut to accessing an introspective character. Dialogue figures just as frugally, and psychological background is entirely withheld. But still we come to know the woman onscreen, speculating about her history and contemplating her future after the film has ended.
In one of the frequent instances in which Cassidy’s camera watches Francine from behind, Leo’s character is seen first while showering. Stepping out naked in front of a prison guard, her face registers only detachment. When the warden tells her to expect a long period of adjustment upon her release, the soft-spoken woman acknowledges receipt of the message with little more than a nod.
She moves into a modest cottage in a quiet rural area, her body language suggesting joy at being back out in the world. (While the location is unidentified in the film, shooting took place in New York’s Hudson Valley area.) But her interaction with other people is minimal and guarded. Awkward exchanges with staff and customers cost her a short-lived job at a pet store. She attends a roller-skating evening organized by a local church, but remains at a distance from Linda (Victoria Charkut), the woman who invited her, even after they end up in bed together following an evening of drinks and dancing at a bar.
Some scenes are disturbingly odd, notably one in which Francine wanders across a field to where a band is grinding out aggressive death-metal tunes. She slowly joins in the small cluster of headbangers in their thrashing dance, though remains as isolated among them as she is on the bus to and from work. Also unsettling is an interlude at a horse track while she’s waitressing during a polo match and has cold, ugly sex in the restroom with a spectator.
These mostly wordless scenes unfold with absolute economy. Shot in a loose documentary style, often framed wide and cut in a choppy, fragmented style, they are incisive in their ability to identify Francine’s shifting emotional states.
There appears to be some hope for her to connect with another human being when she strikes up a shy friendship with handsome Ned (played with acute sensitivity and zero artifice by Keith Leonard). But this gentle recovering alcoholic crosses a line by attempting to kiss her, and her rejection of him appears to hurt both of them equally.
The closeness that eludes her with people she finds only with animals. Early in the film Francine warms to a stray cat by the river and starts leaving out a saucer of milk for it. She steals a puppy from the pet store. Helping out Ned at a stable, she shows instinctive tenderness with the horses. The cats and dogs steadily multiply into a menagerie in her small home, which turns into one large food bowl and litter box.
As bizarre as her character’s behavior gets, Leo is never playing anything as straightforward as a crazy animal lady living in squalor. A distinct sense emerges that not only has rehabilitation failed her but it has damaged her social skills to the point where only in caring for and mothering animals does she feel whole. The beautiful solemnity of a scene in which she buries a dead hamster is extraordinary, with Francine’s tears heard in faint off-camera sniffling.
Still more affecting are the later scenes in which she takes a job at a veterinary clinic. Mike Halstead, a real-life veterinarian in the area, plays her employer, lending authenticity to this section. Assisting in routine procedures such as spaying cats, Francine behaves with almost ceremonial reverence. But as she gives comfort to a dog being humanely euthanized, or disposes of the frozen bodies of these animals, the experiences are wrenching ones for her, as they are for the audience.
The stealth impact of Francine is tremendous given its simplicity and strangeness. The same goes for Leo’s performance, an exceptional demonstration of power in silence. It’s inevitable that this woman will crash again, and a testament to the film’s unsentimental emotional veracity that, even through her most distancing behavior, we become invested in her path.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Forum)
Cast: Melissa Leo, Victoria Charkut, Keith Leonard, Dave Clark, Mike Halstead
Production companies: Washington Square Films, Pigeon Projects
Director-screenwriters: Brian M. Cassidy, Melanie Shatzky
Producers: Joshua Blum, Katie Stern
Executive producer: Anna Gerb
Director of photography: Brian M. Cassidy
Production/costume designer: Christine Cole
Editors: Brian M. Cassidy, Benjamin Gray, Melanie Shatzy
Sales: The Film Sales Company, Washington Square Films
No rating, 74 minutes