Frances lives a life of lonely luxury surrounded by geriatrics but soon invites mischief and mystery into her flat existence. Director Robert Altman’s contemporaneous tale concerns the Flower Power generation and the status quo meeting somewhere in the wasteland of middle-age and rearranges perceptions with piercing insight.
Frances lives alone but is surrounded by aging friends and house servants, more friends of her deceased parents than her own. One day she sees a young man sitting on a park bench in the rain and invites him in. He remains shy and speechless, expressing understanding only with his eyes. This boy (who remains nameless throughout the film) is like an empty vessel filled with Frances’ words. She begins to care for this seemingly homeless young man and he doesn’t resist…even when locked in his room. The first act is a bizarre relationship of mother and son but soon becomes “incestuous”. The second act reveals that this young man has his own life after all when he sneaks out of the window and goes home. He crashes at his sister’s place and smokes pot and partakes of some hash brownies while telling her of this strange pickup. He decides to revisit Frances and resumes the part of mysterious boy but this soon devolves into a bloodletting of repressed sexuality where Frances becomes the one who penetrates…another woman.
Director Robert Altman and his legendary DP Laszlo Kovacks tell a simple story in wonderful detail using oblique lighting effects and slow pan zooms. Often, the camera focuses upon a single point of light and it becomes a brilliant lens flare, growing fainter and changing shape as focus is pulled towards the person speaking. This gives the film an ethereal patina like a slow moving dreamscape as Frances’ begins to come apart at the seams. Altman even foreshadows her decline with a child’s doll, an asexual symbol that falls apart when finally touched. The young man’s sister, after inviting herself to the apartment when Frances is out shopping, plays at sexual attraction with her brother. This heightens the metaphor of incest and domination by the female as she’s the one playing temptress. The final act leads to imprisonment and Frances hiring a prostitute to sleep with her prisoner. Sylvia, the hooker, even jokes that Frances must be a pervert and enjoys voyeurism but she has got it all wrong. Frances is empowered by her suppressed desire and enters the room with her own phallic symbol. It’s Sylvia who is on the receiving end as the film ends with Frances in total control, pinning the young man to the wall with her kisses.
Altman’s style is fully formed in this, one of his earlier films before MASH. He shoots through windows, first focusing on the foreground then slowly zooming in on his subject. In one well-choreographed scene, Frances goes to a gynecologist and Altman shoots the action in one continuous take, tracking from outside and looking through multiple windows. The women in the waiting room are talking about birth control and one lady is surprised that not all men have the same size penis. It’s an important (and a bit funny) detail because it leads us to consider that Frances is even more naïve than this lady. A few scenes later while she is turning down an advance from an elder friend, her mind goes back to the exam. The doctor’s voice is a gentle hum that supersedes the suitor’s. Frances has a look of secret enjoyment while the doctor performs his exam and one begins to wonder if this is the first time a man has ever touched her at all! She later spills her innermost secrets about this elderly man and how she hates his veneer of aging pomposity, and how she needs him (the boy) to make love to her. But she only holds counsel with childhood toys.
Final Grade: (B+)