Lonely and on Sanity's Edge

in 62nd Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Meenakshi Shedde

Francine is a remarkable film by gifted directors Brian Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky. A delicate, minutely-observed portrait of a mentally unstable woman, Francine heralds two powerful directors to watch out for. When the film opens, Francine is being released from prison after serving time for an unknown offence. She settles in a quiet rural area, but is unable to hold down simple jobs.

Unsure of herself, her instability is etched in little haikus rather than broad strokes — she shelters a pet and soon her house is overrun with cats and dogs feeding and littering everywhere. She has sex in the toilet with a patron at the horse races and even has a one-night fling with a church-going woman, but sharply withdraws from the gently romantic Ned when she goes on a date. She then lets herself go at a passing head banger’s heavy metal routine. Essentially, she is more at ease with animals than with humans. She thoroughly enjoys her job looking after horses. Later she works with a vet who is splaying animals or euthanizes them, and empathetically comforts the animals. In a horrible scene, she matter of factly pulls frozen dead animals to be buried. There is a telling scene in which she is heartbroken when her hamster dies and tenderly buries him, digging his grave with a spoon. In the climax, she is distressed to find a dog locked in a car and suffocating. Unable to trace the owner, she smashes the window open to let the dog out. In the last scene, we see her going back to prison.

Melissa Leo puts in a powerful, unforgettable performance as the lonely, on-the-edge Francine. With barely a few lines of dialogue, her face and body language eloquently capture the emotional nuances of her journey. She is able to offer so much love and tenderness, but unable to accept it herself. It’s as if instinctively, she knows she won’t be let down by animals, but by humans — and we are persuaded to go with her. What is remarkable about both the screenplay and performance is that it is never judgmental: we are given very little information about her past and present, and not told what to feel about her; the film almost has a documentary feel. Although she won an Oscar for The Fighter (2010, dir. David O. Russell), Leo’s choice of quiet films such as this one, is admirable.

The cinematography by director Cassidy is evocative of small-town life; rather than focus on close-ups, typical in introspective psychological portraits, he uses wide lenses, where we still see Francine emotionally shut down. The sound design is subtle and effective and ultimately Francine is a highly recommended work.