Melissa Leo‘s portrayal of Mark Wahlberg’s gritty, chain-smoking mother in The Fighter was so incredible it won her the 2010 Academy Award for Best Actress, and brought this woman’s remarkable talent front-and-center to the world’s stage. Now Leo is blowing everyone away once again with her performance in Melanie Shatzky and Brian M. Cassidy’s Francine which recently had its triumphant premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival. The film is an achingly stark glimpse into the life of a lonely, disconnected woman recently released from prison. Unable to engage with people, she surrounds herself with animals in order to satisfy her emotional needs, but the film reveals how this retreating from the world around her has progressively done more and more damage to her ability to relate with people, thereby making her situation worse with each passing day.
To say Leo’s portrayal of Francine is going over well in Berlin would be the understatement of the century. Nearly every single reputable critic has hailed Leo’s work in this film, as well as the film itself, with reviews bordering on the ecstatic. The Hollywood Reporter writes, “A spare, striking drama that provides shattering insight,” and VARIETY praising, “Often wilfully ambiguous but gets at something true and stirring.” One of the most fascinating reviews I’ve read about the film comes from Jessica Kiang of The Playlist who writes:
“…The film is essentially a soil sample of a woman’s life, a cleanly-extracted moment in time pulled from the landscape of her experience with no reference to anything on either side: it is narrow, but it goes down deep. In fact it really feels like the motion of the film is downward into this character, and not along a span of time. Without the distraction of backstory or future plans, we get to examine this brief period, and its few encounters, from all sides, to see how the strata of loneliness can settle on layers of neglect and mistrust, to build a picture of how a person’s ability for human connection can atrophy through underuse … In form, the phrase ‘documentary-style’ will undoubtedly be thrown around in reference to its sometimes verite feel, but this is more a factor of the almost uncomfortable realism Leo brings to her performance than anything else. In fact, the often beautiful photography of often ugly subject matter (directors Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatsky both come from photography backgrounds; this is their first narrative feature) sometimes undercuts the immediacy of the performance, to interesting effect.”
You can read the entire review by visiting The Playlist. And to learn more about the fascinating story behind how Leo found out about the project, shooting it close to where she lives, and the difficulty Leo had in living with the character she so meticulously built be sure to visit Canada.com. Francine is expected to be released in North America in 2012. I can’t help but be reminded of Lesley Manville’s Academy Award-nominated performance in Mike Leigh’s extraordinary 2010 film Another Year. A truly amazing film which also explores similar terrain as Francine, and brings to cinematic life a remarkably real story of loneliness and the human condition. A definite must see.