Tuesday, 21 February 2012

'Francine' Berlinale (Forum) review:

It's not often that a director working on their first ultra low-budget dramatic feature stumbles upon an Academy Award winner who actively wants to star in their little movie. But that's exactly what happened to directors Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky, who were originally looking for local non-actors to play the lead role in 'Francine' before Melissa Leo called and asked for the part. Apparently Leo, who snared the Best Supporting Actress statuette last year for 'The Fighter', stumbled upon the script due to being on an obscure local film mailing list. It's a good job that she did because it's difficult to imagine the film without her.

The titular Francine is in almost every shot of the film and though Leo is surrounded by a cast of authentic seeming non-actors, it's important that Cassidy and Shatzky lucked into the involvement of a world class professional for the lead. It's likewise fantastic to see said professional given such a tough and gritty central role, in an industry where women of Leo's age are customarily confined to supporting parts. As Francine, Leo is given the chance to carry the movie on her shoulders, and the result is something special - elevating a lo-fi film shot on handheld consumer cameras to the point where it's one of the clear highlights of this year's Berlinale.

'Francine' takes the perspective of a women who has been released from prison - having done unspecified time for an unspecified crime - presenting her struggle to readjust to the world following a certain amount of institutionalisation. Though competent, on the outside she finds it difficult to maintain any of the low-skilled jobs she takes up, preferring not to talk to co-workers or make friends. When a lady comes to her door with an invitation to a church event the conversation is typically one-sided and awkward, yet Francine goes along to a roller disco regardless. Her inability to connect with people is not for want of trying, yet when she gets there she sits alone on the outside. Even still a male admirer approaches and, with some reticence, she agrees to go on a date with him. However she spends the date either in silence or in her own world on the dance floor (the only place where she seems able to release her inhibitions).

In the background during all of this is Francine's escalating obsession with animals, as she begins gathering dozens of pets, who roam freely around her cramped dwelling. Soon the place is filthy, with the floor covered in feces and pet food. In the past I've heard friends say that they have more empathy for animals than humans, and this is definitely the case for Francine who is only shown to release any of her obvious, internalised pain when relating to an animal. During one scene, working as a vet's assistant, she weeps uncontrollably as a dog is euthanised. In another she loses all sense of proportion and reason when she finds a dog locked in the back of a car in an empty parking lot.

This connection is suggested right from the outset as Francine leaves prison, sticking her head out of the moving car window like an excited dog. Post-incarceration, it seems, she no longer feels like one of us. In leaving Francine's past a mystery Cassidy and Shatzky avoid miring their film in any specific social problem and present a more universal, nonjudgmental portrait of Francine, as a women wounded and irreparably damaged by her removal from mainstream society. That she clearly likes her male admirer and yet only gets drunkenly intimate with a female neighbor speaks more to an inability to break the routines of (potentially) years in a women's prison than it does to her sexuality.

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