Monday, September 10, 2012

FRANCINE: Cassidy/Shatzky's minimal movie stars a very maximal Melissa Leo

I love minimalism -- particularly after, say, putting up with the latest Hollywood blockbuster. (On that note, we tried our luck with Battleship earlier tonight: nothing great, but certainly not as bad as many critics may have led you to believe.) A recent piece of minimal movie-making that works quite well is a film called FRANCINE, which stars the increasingly popular Oscar-winning actress Melissa Leo and comes to us via the film-making team of Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky, who often act as writers/directors/ editors/producers (and in the case of Ms Shatzky, as occasional cinematographer).

TrustMovies is not certain that there are not a number of other talented actresses who could bring as much as Ms Leo does to this role. But would they? Would they be willing to hold their vanity to the breaking point and allow themselves to be seen sans makeup, in a nude shower scene, and building a charac-terization of a woman about as sad and sorrowful and maybe even as sick as we have seen for some time. It doesn't matter, however, because Leo, shown above, does a leonine job here, absolutely commanding the screen and our attention and yet giving an utterly un-showy perfor-mance as a middle-aged woman just released from prison (where the movie begins) but barely able to function in the world outside.

Our filmmaking duo (that's Cassidy, top left, and Shatzky at bottom) has a history in the documentary mode, and this becomes clear almost from the first frame. There is plenty of ambient sound, sometime overpowering, but zero exposition (we never learn what the crime was that landed this woman in prison), other than what we can pick up moment to moment from Francine and her life, as she and it move quietly along. "I'm sure you'll do fine," the prison warden says to her as he bids her good-bye. If only.

The movie runs but 74 minutes, including credits, and it feels just about exactly the length it needs to be. While I might have concentrated a little more on the human beings in this woman's life, rather than quite so often on its animal inhabitants, it is clear how important these animals are to Francine's sense of well-being and her need to protect others (the others being animals: much less risky than humans), since she is unable to properly protect herself.

She turns down the genuine overtures of a decent, kind and attractive local man -- nice low-key performance from Keith Leonard (above, right) -- only to be have a bout of self-violating sex with a either a boss or maybe a customer (at this point in the film, she's a waitress) at the local track.  We may get a hint of past history in the way the character responds to a seemingly spontane-ous concert by acid rockers that she encounters, but this is almost akin to guesswork on our part. There's a lesbian tryst along the way, too, but that, like so much else here, Francine is unable to respond to in any kind of normal, socially-responsive manner.

Our girl goes through jobs at the local pet store, lumber yard and veterinary clinic -- where we watch examples of animal spaying (below) and euthanasia -- all the while adding to her menagerie of pets until it's clear that she's incapable of taking care of them or herself. She no longer knows (if she ever did; we don't learn this) how to connect solidly with other people on almost any kind of level, and so she begins to disappear into her "pets."

This is sorrowful, depressing stuff, but as I say you can't look away because Ms Leo is always there and always filling, with utter honesty, the body and soul of Francine -- the woman and the movie. The one positive note: Wherever this film takes place -- it seems like maybe upstate New York -- jobs are certainly easy enough to come by. (Another "if only.")

Francine, a minor gem of realistic character study, coming to us via Washington Square Films and Pigeon Projects and distributed by Factory 25, opens this Wednesday, September 12, in New York City for a week's run at the Museum of Modern Art, with a limited national rollout to follow. And on that note: the film's website might possibly consider updating its Screenings page, and Factory 25 might do the same on its website....

No comments: