Nothing Will Come of Nothing
Melissa Leo is again lone and working-class in Francine, co-directors and –writers Brian M. Cassidy (also cinematographer) and Melanie Shatzky’s first fiction feature after a pair of documentaries. The film premières one showing per day over a week at the Museum of Modern Art prior to national rollout.
Less than the star’s Ray Eddy and Alice Ward in Frozen River and The Fighter, the struggling woman’s mind and motivation are not plumbed, her name nowhere given except for the title and no background furnished, as in the same country taxi she enters and leaves, a depressed, depressing mystery.
Paroled or having completed an unspecified sentence for an unnamed crime, she has neither funds nor family. Near or far not considered as well, she appears to be returning to a bungalow number 5 among others alongside a lily-pad lake upstate New York (whose major industry is prisons). There are greenery and roadside buildings, but the local lily-white village is tiny and composed of the usual shabby detritus of such places.
The camera is not relentlessly subjective, but its vision is “Francine’s” point of view. Thus it sees her upper back and head foreground, looking towards whatever center of interest. Any revelations about her are so absent that her personal take on the world has no room for irony; it remains uncertain, on the other hand, whether the filmmakers would be ironic about this dreary world of saggy big waistlines and sudsy small pastimes.
Leo bares herself only physically, showering to rinse off the past of incarceration. Her tight-mouthed character utters a few thank you’s but little else. Those who come across her are desperately bored and lonely and in a shy way try to penetrate and reach out to this stranger.
Self-contained within a shell that may be empty anyway, she passively accepts their overtures, but only outwardly and partially and then turns them off and away. Thus, she accepts Linda’s (Victoria Charkut) canvassing for New Hope Church roller skating and, while bare-chested boys drink and horse around rather than have sex with a pliant girl, has her own romp with the other woman; but, taciturnly polite, she then leaves the screen door closed when contrite or curious Linda comes calling.
Smiling ambiguously into a wall mirror, “Francine” has sex casually enough with a polo-match spectator but avoids going that far with divorced Ned (Keith Leonard), a reformed alcoholic who shows her the ropes at a stable job, is obviously interested, rubs his trimmed beard to indicate perplexity, and even heeds her call to dispose of euthanatized dogs from the freezer at another job as veterinarian’s assistant.
She lets Ned drive off by himself and crosses a parking lot where the most emotion she displays prompts her to smash a car window to liberate a dog inside. The alarm ringing, the dangerous jagged glass is left in place, without a definite result, the same as when she wanders into a group grooving to an outdoor band, moves a bit to the music herself, then walks off without a breath of human contact.
All this while she has been taking in animals, strays, who knows what, even one stolen from a pet shop where she is fired. The cottage is home to cats, dogs and hamsters. Dirty dishes piled, beds unmade, the floor covered with excrement on paper and cardboard, she steals and scatters their feed pellets like so much corn to chickens, wallows on the floor with her pets, caressing and, as with a mare she curries at work, singing softly to them.
A person with obvious problems, one lacking the rudiments that make us social beings, the woman remains aloof from -- better, unnoticing of -- human life around her, a puzzle and a cipher. This absence of emotion should not be misread as the repression of emotion.
There is nothing in and of itself suspect with joy at dipping one’s toes in a lake or preferring the company of quadrupeds to that of bipeds -- Whitman’s “I could turn and live with animals.” However, there is nothing developed in Francine or “Francine” to make a movie. Petered out the perhaps promise of a psychological study or horror flick, halfway through nothing is left. The film’s four-legged friends are not even cuddly or menacing enough to care about.
(Released by Washington Square Films; not rated by MPAA.)