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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Frances
Frances
Starz / Anchor Bay // R // February 19, 2002
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted April 20, 2002 | E-mail the Author
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Frances Farmer. It's a name that I had not heard of before watching this film, which is based on her true story... and I have to admit that after watching Frances, I'm still unclear as to why she merited a feature film. Jessica Lange does her best to bring the role to life, and certainly she does present the character of Frances with remarkable energy and vividness, but nonetheless the film never quite gets off the ground.

The film tells the story of a large part of Frances Farmer's life, starting with her as a teenager in the Depression era. After touching on her ignition of controversy with a "shocking" high school essay, the film follows her through the beginnings of an acting career which soon spirals down into depression, rebellion, scandal, and madness.

But fundamentally Frances never comes across as a sympathetic character. It's difficult to care about the trouble that a character is in when it's glaringly evident that the trouble is mainly of her own making. In retrospect, I can see some of what the film was trying to say, about the way that Frances' difficulties had to do with her relationship with authoritarian figures. Toward the middle of the film, we see that her rebellious spirit leads her to confront authority when compliance is what is more expedient, yet she rejects the expedient solution, preferring to "be herself" even when it lands her in trouble. I think that many viewers will be able to identify with this impulse to a certain degree at least; who hasn't felt the desire to break social conventions at one time or another? This is likely the core of what the film is intending to convey; but the film doesn't really build on it in any convincing way.

It doesn't help matters that the pacing of the film is awkward from the start. After starting with Frances as a high school student, the film jumps along in large leaps to a point later in her life and career. This makes it hard to settle into the story, because just as we start getting a sense of who Frances is and what's going on, we're pulled ahead and given a whole new set of circumstances. In this sense, Frances is a film that tries to do a bit too much: instead of taking a deep look at a slice of Frances' life, the film tries to show it all, and doesn't manage it.

Video

Frances looks so-so; it's a twenty-year-old film that doesn't seem to have been cleaned up to speak of for the DVD transfer. There are flaws in the print, as well as a generous amount of noise. It also shows definite edge enhancement, and the contrast in darker scenes leaves something to be desired. All in all, it's not a terrible transfer, and it is anamorphically enhanced, which is certainly a nice boost. But it could have been a lot better; as is, it doesn't look particularly clean.

Audio

The Dolby 2.0 track conveys the dialogue adequately, but no more than that. The sound in general is fairly flat, with the dialogue slightly muffled on a few occasions.

Extras

If you do find Frances to be an enjoyable film, the DVD edition does offer a reasonable serving of special features to top it off. There's an audio commentary track with director Graeme Clifford, and a thirty-minute featurette entitled "A Hollywood Life: Remembering Frances." We also get the typical minor DVD extras: cast biographies and a trailer.

Final thoughts

Frances is a movie that never seems to have much of a point. It would seem to me that a film made about someone's life would be made about someone who had a life worth telling, but somehow that essential core of Frances Farmer's life never makes it on screen. Jessica Lange makes a valiant try, but the result is simply not particularly worth watching.
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