It’s high time we had a new definition of torture porn: torture not for an imaginary subject, but for the audience. Merely “hard-to-watch” will no longer suffice. If “torture porn” is too divisive, we could call it a “cinema of discomfort.” Somehow Francine, quite intentionally, I imagine, manages to render its brief 74-minute run time interminable, with minimal dialogue and an abundance of excruciatingly awkward social interactions as ex-con Francine (Melissa Leo) struggles to reintegrate into society after prison. Animals, it seems, allow Francine to feel, receive, and bestow a kind of love she cannot muster from people, so she takes up a series of odd jobs involving animals, meanwhile amassing a menagerie to rival the Bouvier-Beales of Grey Gardens.
Writer-director pair Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky present everything you never wanted to know about working at Petco (zip-lock baggies full of frozen fetal rats like cocktail sausages), a back-lot death metal concert that lures spectators into a evangelical trance, and, as a coup de grâce, actual on-screen canine veterinary euthanasia. Of course, this takes place under the supervision of a real veterinarian, but Melissa Leo’s presence eerily blurs the line between documentary and fiction.
What PETA will make of Francine remains to be seen, but if you wait for the expected notice, “no animals were harmed in the making of this movie” in the end credits, no such luck. Instead, you will find a mystifying dedication in the same delicate font as the title, “In memory of Sparky.” It’s unclear if this epitaph is meant to be ironic, heartfelt, or a mix of both.
Francine does the pet lovers of the world no favors by perpetuating the stigma of the crazy cat lady. Francine is infantilized and animalized, craning her head out the car window like an overjoyed Labrador on the way home from prison or gaping, mesmerized, at a tank of goldfish in the pet shop. With her own animals, she recalls Steinbeck’s Lennie Small, literally smothering her objects of desire with naïve and clumsy affection. It is alarming to see Melissa Leo eschew her usual vibrancy—the emotional dynamics that characterize so many of her other performances, swiftly spanning the spectrum from livid to ebullient (as Kay Howard on Homicide: Life on the Street or Toni Bernette in Treme)—in favor of emotional vacancy. According to Francine there is something wrong with the woman who loves animals more than people, she is sexually confused and emotionally stunted. And ultimately the predictable happens—back to prison she goes in a pat little ending. There might be more merit to this film if it concerned itself only with making us uncomfortable, but no, it seems to be telling some sort of story with a questionable moral that does not the justify the torture suffered by spectators just trying to make it from beginning to the end.