By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist February 17, 2012 at 1:05PM
Evoking films like "Winter's Bone" and "Wendy and Lucy" in presenting a sparse, narrowly focused portrait of a lone female protagonist in adverse, not to say desperate circumstances, "Francine" is the kind of small film made for the festival circuit, and for which the festival circuit was made. It is no less reliant on a powerhouse central performance than its aforementioned forebears, if anything more so, as here extraneous detail is pared back almost to the point of nonexistence, leaving Melissa Leo front and center of every scene. It is a testament to her absolutely definitive portrayal that one simply cannot imagine what the film might have looked like with anyone else in the role. Some elegant framing and photography aside, the film lives and dies on her performance, and this being Leo, at her most vanity-less and instinctive, it mostly lives.
The film is essentially a soil sample of a woman's life, a cleanly-extracted moment in time pulled from the landscape of her experience with no reference to anything on either side: it is narrow, but it goes down deep. In fact it really feels like the motion of the film is downward into this character, and not along a span of time. Without the distraction of backstory or future plans, we get to examine this brief period, and its few encounters, from all sides, to see how the strata of loneliness can settle on layers of neglect and mistrust, to build a picture of how a person's ability for human connection can atrophy through underuse.
How you will respond, however, relies entirely on how you enjoy this sub-genre overall. It is as fine a portrait of marginalisation as you could hope for, but if you want anything, even a tiny bit more than that, you won't find it here. It is bleak stuff, few moments of levity lighten the mood, and the ending, while entirely apropos, is no less pessimistic for being slightly amigibuous: did some part of Francine always know her time out here was just an interlude? How much of this was consciously predestined, and how much unconsciously? Not exactly starting on an emotional high point, and then following a gradual, unravelling, downward trajectory, the movie plays like a mournful single-instrument solo, in a minor key. Depending on your mood and your tastes, you may find yourself beguiled by its sparseness, or longing for something a little more orchestral.
Basically the story follows Francine for a brief period of time subsequent to her release from prison. Unwilling to involve herself in human relationships, despite several opportunities, Francine drifts through a number of jobs, in the process accumulating a menagerie of pets in her increasingly filthy house -- animals being easier for her to relate to and love. In form, the phrase "documentary-style" will undoubtedly be thrown around in reference to its sometimes verite feel, but this is more a factor of the almost uncomfortable realism Leo brings to her performance than anything else. In fact, the often beautiful photography of often ugly subject matter (directors Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatsky both come from photography backgrounds; this is their first narrative feature) sometimes undercuts the immediacy of the performance, to interesting effect. Then again in other ways, the film feels like it actually features less artifice than a documentary, because while a doc edits and shapes footage to support a thesis, here there is a slightly arbitrary feel to the scene selection. Not that anything is extraneous, mind, it's just that it feels like the filmmakers could have chosen these or any other of a thousand moments from these few weeks in our character's life and still have made essentially the same film; there are only a few incidents that truly "happen" -- that is, that effect real change in Francine's behavior. And if that doesn't come across as a compliment, well, it's not meant as a criticism either. It is, as the film itself is, a non-judgemental observation.
There is something of another character in the film in the shape of the Hudson Valley landscape in which it is set. The film is financed by the Hudson Valley Film Commission, and it's also where Leo lives IRL. There is a beauty to the landscape, true, but we don't feel its picturesqueness nearly as strongly as we feel its pitiless impersonality. The landscape is a reflection on Francine's state of mind, in both places, human sounds can scarcely penetrate the deadening silence. So not exactly a tourist brochure.
The film so succeeds in its modest, controlled ambitions, and provides such a worthy and welcome showcase for Leo's talents that there is a significant danger in overpraising it. It is microscopically small in its scope, and entirely contained, and while that is not a criticism, it is a caution; part of the reason that "Francine" is going across so well in its festival presentation is that it represents something of a respite for a lot of tired-eyed, overstimulated festivalgoers. In another situation, it's easy to feel that the film's spartan approach might simply come across as too enigmatic and unadorned: a high-fiber slice of dry cracker-bread with no topping.
As a story, "Francine" lacks a great deal. But as a series of minutely observed details that illustrate a person's state of mind, it is impressive. Francine bizarrely headbanging along to a metal band playing an impromptu daytime gig to a few spectators; Francine sucking on a tiny kitten's paw or sobbing into the fur of an old dog who's being put down; Francine minutely withdrawing from a tentative potential kiss; all these scenes fit together to form a greater mosaic image that may not be exactly dynamic, but does chime with the clear, deep, sad ring of truth. [B]