Frankie & Alice, which has remained shelved since its week-long, award-qualifying release in December of 2010, tells the true story of a woman with dissociative identity disorder (DID). This forces me to rethink my negative feelings for it, since the condition remains to this day the subject of much debate and controversy, not merely amongst the general public, but also amongst medical professionals. The argument, according to dissenters, is that DID is subjective to both the patient and the practitioner and is little more than an iatrogenic side effect of therapy – which is to say, complications resulting from medical treatment. Theories about the media and the power of suggestion have also been proposed.
Consider the fact that, before the 1973 publication of the novel Sybil and its 1976 made-for-TV adaptation, there were only about seventy-five known cases of DID; since then, there have been around 40,000 cases, and of those, most were diagnosed in North America.
With this in mind, how seriously am I supposed to take this movie? Am I to approach it as a factual representation of science and research, or merely as a work of fiction? I tend towards the latter, for much of the material comes off as manufactured and soapy, the stuff you would see in a Lifetime movie of the week. It stars and was produced by Halle Berry, who earned a 2011 Golden Globe nomination for her performance – or rather, her performances. With this, I wholeheartedly agree; her presence onscreen is nothing short of spellbinding, for she exhibits the personalities of not one, but three people, all of whom are nothing close to similar. The problem is, her talent is at the mercy of a premise many consider questionable. Even if DID was unanimously accepted by the medical community, the plot would still be one of unrelenting melodrama.
The vast majority of the film takes place in 1973. Berry plays Frankie, an exotic dancer working in a seedy Los Angeles strip club. Gradually, others make her aware of events and mannerisms she has no memory of, such as an already completed crossword puzzle and handwriting that doesn’t match her own. When her rent is due, she thinks she has money in the bank, but her account is depleted; when she double checks her checkbook, she notices a large purchase she doesn’t remember making. When a new personality is triggered during a sexual encounter, it becomes a violent scene. She frantically leaves the man’s apartment and staggers into the street, where the police assume she’s a druggie in need of medical treatment.
At the hospital, she meets Dr. Oz (Stellan Skarsgård), who bears absolutely no resemblance to the talk show host of the same name. He, like all doctors in movies such as this, is eccentric and shunned by the rest of the medical community for his wild theories and unorthodox methods. He’s convinced that there’s more to Frankie than meets the eye, and he’s determined to prove that there’s merit to his research. In an effort to avoid jail time, Frankie willingly commits herself to the hospital’s psychiatric ward and begins treatment with Dr. Oz. Under hypnosis, two distinct personalities emerge from Frankie’s mind. One is a child Oz nicknames Genius, who has a remarkably high IQ. The other is a Southern white racist named Alice, who seems aware that she’s in Frankie’s body and is hell bent on taking control. All three have a different command of the body they share; Frankie, for example, is a heavy smoker, whereas Alice would never touch a cigarette. Also take note of the dominant hand, which changes from personality to personality.
Her past, and eventually the reason for her condition, is revealed little by little in fragmented flashback sequences. Suffice it to say they involve the state of Georgia, her mother (Phylicia Rashad), and Paige, the daughter of a wealthy Southern family. What’s ultimately revealed is a tragedy so over the top that, with just a change in the period and setting, it would be adequate for a gothic Victorian novel. The climactic scene of Dr. Oz filming Frankie with a surveillance camera is yet another example of how much Hollywood enjoys romanticizing a mental disorder; it plays less like psychiatry and more like an exorcism, the personalities within emerging with the speed and frequency of a tag team. I’m no medical expert, but I have done enough research to know that a scene like this is in no way, shape, or form accurate.
All the same, Berry embodies these personalities so thoroughly, one could conceivably make an argument for a single role receiving multiple award nominations. The issue here is not the quality of her performances. It’s the story her performances are built around. It’s also the other characters, who are surprisingly one-dimensional. Oz is hardly compelling, for he’s required to be nothing more than what the screenplay wants him to be at any given moment. The mother, while competently played by Rashad, is really just an accessory to the drama of Frankie’s life. The most unfortunate thing about Frankie & Alice is the fact that its very existence hinges on little more than medical speculation. Had the story been a little less forced, this might not have been a problem.
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