Film Review: Francine

Numbing, uninvolving portrait of an ex-con as an animal-loving zombie.

If minimal cinema is to your liking, Francine is definitely your cuppa. Melissa Leo plays the title character, an ex-con readjusting to life. Her grimy peregrinations take her through a variety of low-paying jobs such as pet-store employee, waitress and veterinarian’s assistant, none of which she excels at particularly. She does, however, possess a true fondness for animals, and soon her modest house is filled with stray cats and dogs.

Married filmmakers Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky make their feature debut with this rigorously unembellished character study that will strike some as impressively stark and Bressonian, and others, like me, as one big yawn. The film’s mere 74 minutes crawl by like a Zen snail’s trail, and one is reminded of how much more color and excitement could be packed into a running time like this by so many more watchable Pre-Code epics. Although the camera is resolutely trained on Francine, we never really find out what makes this uncommunicative, zombie-like woman tick.

Leo, as always, is an impressive actress, throwing herself into the un-cosmeticized demands of this rigorous role, from an early scene in which she appears naked in a prison shower. But this reviewer yearned for the insight and emotional observation which fueled her much more involving turn in Frozen River, in which she also played a woman oppressed by society but had so much more to work with.

The filmmakers here favor wordlessness, as Francine falls into situations ranging from heartless sex at the polo ground to a drunken lesbian encounter with a religious proselytizer. When she randomly comes upon a mediocre, head-banging rock group, she stands transfixed by the “music” for a small eternity that, again, may seem character-wise and profound, but kills the movie dead.