2012, Movie, 74 mins


The drama Francine observes the day-to-day experiences of the titular middle-aged woman (Melissa Leo), an ex-convict newly released from prison. During her first days on the outside, she tentatively puts her life in order, but experiences overwhelming difficulty and seems bound to fail.

This picture belongs to a tradition of movie storytelling that embraces extreme minimalist drama. As such, it joins the ranks of Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) and Joseph Anthony’s Tomorrow (1972); it also appears to be influenced by the more recent works of the Berlin School, such as Henner Winckler’s Lucy (2006) and Ulrich Kohler’s Windows on Monday (2006). The goal in all of these films involves training a cinematic microscope on a character who is seemingly unremarkable and banal, and revealing the nuances as anything but.

Working together, star Leo and co-directors and co-writers Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky nail down a specific and trenchant, highly unified interpretation of the central character. What we’re given is a woman not incapable of empathy, but devoid of super-instinctual elements -- of emotional intelligence, of ethics and morality, of adult reasoning. The key to Francine is her unusual rapport with animals -- an aspect that becomes pervasive in the movie, as the woman hoards dogs, cats, and hamsters, and accepts jobs caring for horses in a stable and working as a veterinary assistant. Not only does she experience a bond with the creatures, she seems to exist on their level. This means a complete, pansexual lack of discretion as far as whom she has intercourse with (she thinks nothing of casual liaisons with male and female pickups, and at one point she is brutally assaulted like an animal in a bathroom); it also means a surfeit of ill-advised decisions of the kind that a child would make -- shoplifting to feed her pets, for example, and breaking the window of a parked car when she spots a dog locked inside and fears for its safety. Many of the external prerequisites are present that would enable her to build and achieve a well-rounded, satisfactory life -- including respectable jobs and the possibility of a relationship with a sweet-natured stableman who really likes her -- but she lacks the most vital component: the intellectual and psychological stability necessary to put all of the pieces together.

This may be the most difficult kind of story to tell: Like Coppola’s The Rain People, it examines a female character who sets off on an emotional quest but is transparently missing the inner resources to achieve her end goal. As one critic famously wrote about the Coppola picture, “It’s based on a losing battle from the beginning.” Defeat has been woven into the story’s narrative fabric from the movie’s very conception. That may not constitute a weakness of the film, but it does make it relentlessly downbeat, heavy, and sad.

The picture is nevertheless exhilarating to watch, though, due to an Oscar-worthy central performance and meticulously gauged writing and direction. All three artists are working at the very edge of their abilities here. Leo, in particular, is a revelation -- she brings Francine to life with big, deep, searching eyes that convey pain, misery, and confusion, as well as a heightened level of sensorial perception regarding the world around her that -- again -- is very animal-like. In Leo’s hands, Francine breaks your heart from her very first scene; the actress also manages to be so expressionistic that we’re able to figure out the jist of the character’s entire emotional life with merely a few close-ups. This is the sort of performance that is all too rare -- it feels deep, worn, lived-in. It also offers a resonant reminder of what makes outstanding cinema truly worth watching. leave a comment --Nathan Southern

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92Y-Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich with Francine Segan (October 4, 2009)
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