Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Written by: Noah Baumbach & Greta Gerwig (screenplay)
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Michael Esper and Adam Driver
Frances Ha may be the most uplifting film that Noah Baumbach has made, but with a filmography mostly defined by feuding families and the psychologically destructive aftermath, that doesn’t seem like a very difficult feat to overcome. It is, though. What makes Frances Ha brilliant is that, despite the relentless, elliptical French New Wave editing and structure, it feels effortlessly modern and also retains a distinct sense of melancholy.
Baumbach’s decision to shoot in black and white (and a detour to France midway through) makes the influence of Godard and Truffaut even more confrontational. It is still very much a movie of its time, though, with its frank if jittery examinations of female sexuality and friendship and its pleasingly liberated conclusion.
Greta Gerwig gives what I believe to be the best performance of 2013 (so far) as Frances, a manic pixie dream girl whose dreams are her own. She is annoyingly nice because she is constantly nervous about what people are thinking about her, kind of an American take on Poppy from Mike Leigh’s 2008 masterpiece Happy Go Lucky. Though the movie has a very New York sensibility, Frances finds herself in two very distant locales before the end.
These scenes are meant to show us Frances in different environments, at holiday dinner with her family in Sacramento and completely on her own walking along the Seine after her spur-of-the-moment weekend trip to Paris that she can’t afford. Though Frances Ha is partly a study of the stubborn cost of independence, it is also a quiet examination of class. Frances’ best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) walks around the apartment she shares with two guys and ridicules it for being a rich kids apartment, saying, “This apartment is too aware of itself” and that the only people in New York who can afford to be artists have rich parents.
Sophie is a somewhat bitter counterpoint to Frances, though they claim to be the same person with different hair. Their friendship forms the core of the movie, and provides it with its most blatant conflicts and a surprising, touching resolution. It seems obvious to compare the way they talk to the central characters in Lena Dunham’s Girls (Adam Driver also has a minor role here), but it trades in a lot of the body talk bluntness and zingers for a quieter, more realistic approach.
One of the movie’s biggest running gags, if you can call it that, is that Frances is “undatable,” but Baumbach and Gerwig spend a lot of time showing that that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Frances’ biggest problem isn’t a man but reconciling her ambition to be a dancer with the reality that it isn’t economically feasible. The ending feels a little too tidy, though Gerwig sells it well and it almost feels earned.
If this is Baumbach’s nicest movie to date, it is also his most formally accomplished. In movies like The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding, he favored color-faded naturalism to balance out his bitingly clever dialogue. His worlds have always felt somewhat lived in because of how exhausted his protagonists seems. Frances is a dancer, and determined to be happy instead of defeated and bitter. The clash between the interior scenes and the Bowie-fueld exterior tracking shots illustrates that struggle, and the quick cutting between mundane moments in her life makes art out of the everyday, just like she tries to do.