Frances Ha (2013) – Noah Baumbach

Frances Ha (2013) is a delightful confection, a movie that is both a glorification of a certain type of person and a warning against that type. It’s hard to watch it without admiring and even falling a little for Frances Haliday (Greta Gerwig), the luminescent screw-up who carries the film, but it’s just as impossible not to see and feel relieved that you don’t have to live like she does.

The movie exists in little moments in Frances’ life because her life exists in little moments. She’s a dancer but as she explains to someone who asks her what she does, she “doesn’t really do it.” She’s a 27-year-old apprentice in a struggling professional dance outfit, and it seems clear to everyone except her that if she was going to become a permanent member, she’d have done it by now. She is more than happy to exist on the fringe of the most fringy of existences because she has her best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), by her side. They spend their time together, mature at a snail’s pace together, and describe each other as “an old lesbian couple who doesn’t have sex anymore.” They even cook for each other or, as Frances explains, “I tried to make a frittata but it ended up as more of a scramble.”

The movie is really their story, the story of young adult friendships that, like romantic relationships, ebb, flow and sometimes die as people grow and change. Because people wrongly elect sex as the benchmark for meaningful relationships, people assume that non-sexual friendships should be easy and constant, scrubbed clean of the volatile element of physical intimacy but it’s not that way. Friendships require work and compromise, and Frances Ha tells the story of young women who realize that.

The problem is that Sophie quietly grows tired of scraping by with a roommate and eating scrambles that were meant to be frittatas. This, as it often does, just sort of happens, there’s no inciting incident, but Sophie, as people do, is simply changing. She wants to experience more adult things, say, an apartment of her own, a mature romantic life and a steady job. These things make Frances feel alienated and unwanted, and she eventually moves out to further retard her growing up with a couple of Brooklyn hipsters named Benji (Michael Zegen) and Lev (Adam Driver), whom she moves in with. Sophie, for her part, goes in the opposite direction—to Tokyo with Patch (Patrick Heusinger), her painfully WASPy fiancé.

Their split is typical. Thousands of college friends drift apart as they approach their 30s; as they reach different maturing speeds, they replace the things they received from each other with other things or realize they don’t need them anymore. Frances and Sophie don’t ever get over each other, and in the end they do what friendships are designed to do—they learn from one another.

Noah Baumbach, who directed and wrote the script with Gerwig, shows the action through a quiet, observant camera. Baumbach’s gift as a filmmaker is in his ear for appropriate dialogue. His Squid and the Whale (2005) is pitch perfect in the way that a family that’s disintegrating tries to communicate with itself. Here he nails the rhythm and sound of young adults stuck in regressed adolescence. In one scene, Frances and Benji are sitting on the couch as Lev and a girl enter the apartment. “You want to see my room?” Lev asks the girl, as if they were in the third grade, though one assumes they’ll be doing things in there that aren’t allowed for third-graders. The details are exactly right. For example, Benji, an out of work writer living on his parents’ money, is plainly unemployable. He’s putting his career hopes into his half-finished screenplay for a third Gremlins movie. “I’ve been fired a million times,” he says. “It makes you cool.”

Beyond being an observant and funny chronicle of spoiled hipsterism, the movie is Baumbach’s love letter to the French New Wave (a very spoiled hipsterish notion, if ever there was one). It’s shot in electric black and white, is more about feelings than story, and it uses selections by Georges Delerue, the preferred composer of the Truffauts and Godards, in its soundtrack. Speaking of Truffaut, the movie has a spot of dialogue that the master would have approved:

Benji: “Want to go to a movie?”

Frances: “Movies are so expensive now.”

Benji: “Yeah, but you’re at the movies.”

It reminded me of a passage in Day for Night (1974, which Delerue wrote the score for) in which two women who work on a movie crew confide that they would leave a guy for a film but never a film for a guy.

Jean-Pierre Léaud is even mentioned in the movie, which is fitting because Frances Haliday is projected as a female Antoine Doinel, the Truffaut character Léaud became synonymous with. There’s a lot of Bed and Board (1970) in Frances Ha, as Frances, like Doinel in his movie, struggles to make a living but is able to survive mainly on whimsy. For all Baumbach’s loving references, he doesn’t have the same poignancy or energy as some of his idols, but he may be luckier than all of them because Greta Gerwig is at the center of his film and not theirs.

On paper Frances Ha may seem like an indulgent and insufferable elevator ride with a perkily unpleasant person. Frances is the kind of woman who asks, “Do you know what Virginia Woolf novel this reminds me of?” She goes to Paris to see Puss in Boots (2011) in a theater and is constantly dancing and singing regardless of appropriateness. This has all the earmarks of being tedious and irritating, but Gerwig never allows that to happen, bringing a charming exuberance during the light moments but a real grounded approachability when it’s required. For all her quirky and dangerously irresponsibility, she becomes a more realized character than many who appear on screen, presenting an authentic contradiction of magic and humanity.

Baumbach shows restraint in Frances and Sophie’s reunion. It’s always clear who’s changing and why, but it happens without comment, as it does so often in real life. There are no fireworks or melodrama here; in fact, the movie is fairly aimless, which befits an aimless person. It’s also entirely lovely, befitting its main character as well. 

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