Monday, June 3, 2013

Love: Frances Ha

Noah Baumbach has a long history of subjecting his intellectual characters to curious forms of sadism. He's a director whose works bear the mark of Woody Allen, but who has never allowed the neurotic messes he writes to thrive or find their place in the way Allen's somehow seem to. Instead, Baumbach seems to pull from a personal history of annoyances (the dueling aesthetes of Squid and the Whale were modeled after his own parents, after all) to catalog the ways in which the so-called smart people are barely excuses for people at all.  Squid, Kicking and Screaming, Margot at the Wedding, and Greenberg mark an increasingly embittered progression of mean-spirited talkies.  Where Allen's films (of the late 70's and 80's especially) seem to find some sort of laughing joy in their intense, self-admitting narcissism, Baumbach's tend to crucify their characters and force them to drag about the cross of their own neurotic behavior til it manifests as mental illness.

At first, it seems like Frances Ha may lead in that direction. Baumbach's latest outing is a small-scale ode to French New Wave, Woody Allen, and his leading lady/real life girlfriend: Greta Gerwig. Baumbach and Gerwig have pinned down the curious ways in which contemporary Brooklyn seems to be reaching back towards the New York depicted in Allen's Manhattan. The American Apparel-style clothes are interchangeable with the threads of 1980, the struggling artists and trust fund babies are equally insufferable, the eyeglasses have come full circle.  The superficial similarities work in the film's favor to build a sense of deep nostalgia around Frances Ha. It's a movie that feels well-worn, like we've seen it a dozen times already, but which is somehow brand new.
The big difference between then and now is, perhaps, that we've reached a point where people have the luxury of not having to straighten out and completely 'grow up' once they've hit the legal age of adulthood. Gerwig specializes in playing someone who's only about half adult, a confused woman-child who's happiest when they're allowed to just be themselves without putting on what, for them, is a phony air of maturity.  Frances Ha's titular protagonist, Frances Halliday, is a 27-year old dancer who, we find out, doesn't really get much of a chance to dance. She's the ballerina from the island of misfit toys, a girl who's blissfully happy so long as she's hanging out with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), who has big ideas about love and connection, and who charms those around her even as she makes them a bit uncomfortable. The film opens on what we understand to be a standard-issue perfect day in Frances's world: she and Sophie hang out with friends at a party, drink too much, play fight, and go home to read and reassure one another of their platonic affections. So, when Sophie drops the news that she's moving to a new apartment (and might be truly in love with her 'bro' of a boyfriend), Frances finds that the ground has dropped beneath her feet.

Wholly independent and stubborn to the last, the film follows Frances as she embarks on hardships that she seems to treat like isolated adventures. She takes on trust-fund hipster roommates (Adam Driver and Michael Zegen) until she can't afford to do so any longer, she refuses to compromise her dancer dreams until she finds herself unemployed, she goes home and doesn't let her parents know she's struggling, she jets off on a weekend in Paris that she accidentally sleeps through half of. When she speaks aloud about each moment (if she does), the more well-adjusted around her seem to belie their discreet judgments. Her friends and peers have moved on to talking about careers and homes, they're getting married and beginning to have kids. As they listen to Frances, they seem to be edging away, unsure of how exactly to respond.  She's a struggling artist who talks, in long, broken, dazed sentences, about big ideas she can't quite articulate. Yet, while her own brand of intellectual narcissism leads her towards stubbornness, she's forever her own person and never as hateful as the characters (just on the periphery) depicted in, for example, Girls.
For all the implied loneliness of Fran's existence, the film resists becoming the sort of nastiness Greenberg was and never takes pot shots at its protagonist. Instead, it plays out as a love letter to Gerwig's capabilities and to Frances's genuineness of spirit. Baumbach has found an actress who, for him, works like Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow did for Allen, and who is allowed to exist pleasantly on her own terms.  Though she at first seems to be of the mold, Frances is not a character crafted in the image of Annie Hall or Alvy Singer, or who obnoxiously grew up too aware of their existence. Instead, she's just Frances. So she dances. She dances and talks and play fights and tries to the point that we feel we have befriended her and are, somehow, invested in the film's outcome. Though frequently defeated, Frances Ha holds up small recession-era victories and allows the audience to walk away feeling like the character is better off than they found her, that she is capable of enduring the hardships of her vagabond homelessness and misadventures.  She will keep dancing.


  1. I'm ecstatic about this film, and it only popped up on my radar a couple weeks ago :)

  2. Nice review! I really enjoyed this movie as well. And I completely agree with you, part of the reason it succeeds so well is because it isn't nasty like Greenberg. It never beats Frances down, you know?


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