The opening moments of Francine find Melissa Leo, playing the title role, standing naked, wet and blankly confused in a prison shower. She's on the verge of release after an unspecified crime and an unspecified period of incarceration, and the visual metaphor is an obvious one: a woman in middle age experiencing rebirth, coming into her new world in much the same way she entered at the start.
But the film that follows is much more subtle than that opening, and Francine's fresh start is less one of limitless possibilities and more like that of an actual infant: she's vulnerable, undeveloped, completely unprepared to face life on her own.
Writer-directors Melanie Shatzky and Brian M. Cassidy are at the helm for their first narrative feature here, after a number of documentaries and shorts. And at times Francine feels like a documentary as well, an intimate observational work in the mode of Frederick Wiseman or the Maysles brothers, where the omnipresence of the camera puts the characters so at ease that they reveal subtle moments of character that they might otherwise hide out of self-consciousness.
Francine is laconic nearly to the point of being mute — often she doesn't even respond to direct questions. Leo is set the difficult task of playing a character who not only speaks infrequently, but who is so inwardly focused that even her body language is barely communicative.
This is a character who keeps herself wrapped under protective layers, yet is still emotionally raw. It's a testament to both Leo's sad-eyed performance and the filmmakers' skill at capturing the subtlety of it that the study has such richness to it.
With little dialogue, this is a story told through actions, and while we get nothing of Francine's background, we get a clear picture of who she is. She has a deep distrust of people, so much so that she keeps even those who are kind and nurturing at arms' length; what love and affection might be directed at them she bestows instead on animals. Her post-incarceration employment record during the brief period covered by the film encompasses a pet store, the horse stables at a polo ground and a veterinarian.
For a time, it seems that the only use she has for other humans is as emotionless sexual outlet. But she eventually abandons her attachment to them even for those purposes, leaving the growing population of rescued strays overtaking her small house to be the focus of her increasingly obsessive affections and — in one scene that toes a very uncomfortable line — of her sensuality.
While sensitively observed, the extremely minimal approach here is problematical in that it's content to forgo most everything in the way of story. It often calls to mind another minimalist film on the subject of lonely existential despair in a solitary woman deeply attached to an animal: Kelly Reichardt's 2008 Wendy and Lucy. Reichardt's film presents a definitive problem to be solved — the disappearance of Wendy's dog — that keeps the film moving forward. Francine shows a woman in helpless free fall, but for much of the first half, that plummet isn't quite apparent, and the result can sometimes feel aimless and meandering. When it does slide into focus, the eventual point of impact has a bleak inevitability.
A little aimlessness never makes the film seem overlong, though, not at a brief 74 minutes, and the immersive, quiet desperation of Leo's performance more than compensates, as does the directors' keen eye for detail. It's a stark reminder that rebirth can be as painful and traumatic a process as birth, and while there may be new starts, they're rarely fresh ones.