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The horror of lobotomy and mental institutions as an American tragedy
Containing both the greatest score (John Barry) and the greatest performance (Jessica Lange) in motion picture history, FRANCES is a film unrivaled for creative talent. Often overlooked, whether because it is a secret dark enough that some people may like it to be buried or because it actually frightens us into blocking it out, is the central theme of the story: the tragedy of lobotomy and the corruption of mental institutions in American history.
Lobotomy was developed in the 1930s--a procedure that severs a nerve in the brain, making the patient unable to feel intense feelings, including love, and diminishing creativity. Neurosurgery, as it is also known, was given to patients who were too willful or uncooperative, usually in a hospital setting. What history books will probably not tell you, but FRANCES may (by inference) is how liberally administered lobotomies were. Anyone deemed a nonconformist or a radical, who possessed traits then associated with mental illness (one of them, according to science before the 1970s, homosexuality) could receive a lobotomy. An example then, may be a homosexual who was in love. A way to cure his or her homosexual tendencies (by diminishing his or her capacity to love) would have been lobotomy.
It is tragic and heartbreaking to imagine losing that freedom to love, but it undoubtedly happened to many people. One of those people may have been Frances Farmer. It is not known whether Farmer received a lobotomy or not, but the film is of the belief that she was lobotomized--and it presents to us an intelligent film illustrating the tragedy of that event, and time, in history.
It is key that FRANCES is, at its core, a love story--for it is this love that Frances must tragically lose. As played unforgettably by Jessica Lange, Frances is a freedom fighter who will not conform. Deeply sensitive, she sees things others do not (hospitalized, she reveals to the confused psychiatrist, "Do you really think you know more about what goes on in my mind than I do?"). The only person who loves her is Harry York (mistakenly referred to by some film reviewers as a plot device, he is essential to the story). She tells him, sadly, in one moving scene, "Sometimes I wonder if anyone really loves anybody" (and we wonder along with her).
Also key to FRANCES is the use of emotion over reason, for after all this is a film about losing one's freedom to FEEL--and all that one may feel, including love, through lobotomy. When at every moment we experience Frances's wistful longing, and experience it through her tortured eyes and John Barry's strings, the startling images and music have the power to haunt our dreams. And when Frances loses her ability to feel, at the end of the film, and meets Harry York one last time--we know the tragedy of losing the ability to feel and love another person, for Frances's eyes are then completely, horrifyingly blank and empty, like those of a sleepwalker. And Harry York sees it, too, which is the sad end of the film. We are told that Frances died alone, and we know how many tears Frances had inside that she would never cry again.
One reviewer complained of the film's appeal to emotions over reason--well, just think what would the opposite be? An Orwellian world of people who never loved or felt? Others complain that the film is not true to Frances Farmer's life--but that is little to complain about, considering how true the film is to a time in American history when one could lose their freedom to be who they were, and love who they wanted. That is the big picture, and if you can't see it then you are not intelligent enough for this great, great film that promotes all of the human virtues--and how sometimes, by those who possess no virtues, they can be taken away.
*UPDATE: The character of Harry York is NOT a plot device or a fictional character, as some have alleged. He is based on a real person who knew Frances. I learned this by watching the film with the director's commentary on.
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