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“Francine”: Melissa Leo’s Next Oscar?

August 2, 2012

Remember Melissa Leo’s controversial “rogue” Oscar campaign for The Fighter, when she appeared in the Hollywood trade papers all glammed up in a floor-length fur, urging voters to “Consider” her? Well, she pulls a 180 with her remarkably vanity-free turn as a recently released ex-convict struggling to reintegrate herself into society in Francine, a shattering indie drama that played to a full house last night at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and begins an unprecedented and much-deserved one-week run at the Museum of Modern Art on Sept. 12. And it just might win her another Academy Award.

Leo’s Oscar ads were so jarring because she’s never been known for hair or makeup. I interviewed her 20 years ago on the set of Homicide: Life on the Street, when she was fighting with NBC about not making her Baltimore cop too pretty. That’s not an issue in Francine; from the stark first scene, when Leo goes full frontally nude in a prison shower, it’s clear that this is a warts-and-all performance. It’s also one that features very little dialogue. We never hear the socially challenged Francine (or anyone else) speak her name, which may be a reference to St. Francis of Assisi, since she relates better to non-human animals than her fellow men and women, as seen in this extended excerpt.

In this sense, Francine is reminiscent of another tale of a woman on the fringes of society who finds solace from animal companionship: Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, with Michelle Williams in a nearly wordless tour de force as a wanderer living on the streets with her dog that should’ve (but didn’t) earn her an Oscar nomination. The lack of dialogue—as well as Francine‘s brief, 74-minute running time (six minutes shorter than W and L)—may work against Leo’s chances with the Academy, but silence certainly didn’t hurt The Artist‘s Jean Dujardin come awards season.

Yet it’s this very elliptical quality that makes Francine such a haunting cinematic experience. We never know why Francine went to jail, although we get a few clues from her behavior, or why she can’t connect with the gentle, damaged horse trainer (the quietly charismatic Keith Leonard) who hesitantly attempts to romance her. Writer-directors Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky, a pair of documentarians making their narrative debut, are more interested in setting a tone through striking visuals and a deeply evocative soundtrack, and letting viewers fill in the details.

Francine goes against the current cinematic grain of overexplaining everything, which is why it joins Beasts of the Southern Wild, Ruby Sparks and Killer Joe as one of this year’s most exciting new films. It’s the anti-Total Recall: a low-budget, no-frills drama grounded in gritty reality, in which memories can’t be created, or escaped.

What’s your favorite Melissa Leo role—her Oscar-nominated work as a cop in Frozen River? Or her ongoing gig as a Nawlins lawyer on Treme? Post a comment!

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