Frances (Greta Gerwig) is a gangly 20-something who lives in New York, but is perennially broke, unfocussed and prone to mildly self-destructive behaviour. An apprentice for a dance company, Frances is also a klutz, but that does not stop her from chasing her dreams.

 

4
Deceptively upbeat modern romance runs deep.

Colin MacCabe once wrote that the history of the cinema is the history of shy, unprepossessing men and their strivings to get close to heartbreakingly beautiful women. MacCabe, a filmmaker and fine scholar, wrote that in a biography about Jean-Luc Godard. He wasn’t just talking of the ancient maxim that says that all auteurs must fall in love with their leading women, and the necessity of using a camera to achieve that goal. Anyone who knows what Godard and Anna Karina look like and has encountered Bande Á  part (Godard, 1964) has a sense of what MacCabe was talking about.

'Frances Ha abounds with pleasures; the epigrammatic punchy dialogue, the casual performances, the street shooting, the whole rhythm and flow is grin-inducing.'

That quote and that thought made me smile while I was watching Frances Ha, the terrific new picture from Noah Baumbach (I have no idea whether Baumbach is shy but he looks nothing like Godard, but resembles quite a bit, actor Adrien Brody.) I got to wonder whether Baumbach, a hard-core cineaste himself, had ever read MacCabe. He certainly seems to know his Godard and his movie history. Which isn’t suprising. He is the son of Georgia Brown, a splendid critic who wrote for the Village Voice. His father is novelist and film writer Jonathan Baumbach, who knows one or two things about cinema too I would reckon. 

Frances Ha is not only something of a homage to a certain kind of New Wavishness, but, apparently, it was borne out of a romance between director, and its star and co-writer Greta Gerwig.

Baumbach and Gerwig met on Greenberg, the director’s quite brilliant and criminally under-rated black comedy from 2010.

Small, somewhat introverted, dangerously personal, dark and scathingly funny, Baumbach’s muse in his pictures like The Squid and the Whale (2005, still his master work) and Margot at the Wedding (2007) has been derided as somewhat sour. When it comes to human frailty, it is unforgiving and some consider it bleak. The way his detractors tell it he’s a forty-something Woody Allen without the jokes, a miserablist with an inexhaustible reservoir of unkind observations on the way white middle-class people can enact cruelty upon each other in the name of self-determination.

Still, I’ve always found Baumbach tough-minded rather than simply tough. Besides, he’s got a sense of whimsy that gets too often overlooked and there’s an unsentimental sweetness too; an appreciation for the way people suffer and seek forgiveness for those tiny transgressions that can leave scars on the ones they love.

Just what kind of influence Gerwig has had on Baumbach one can only guess but Frances Ha gives full vent to the director’s 'up’ side. Breezy and light toned, Frances Ha is set in a New York made gorgeous under the black and white of cinematographer Sam Levy which recalls Gordon Willis’ work on Manhattan (1979), still Woody Allen’s most romantic picture. For the music Baumbach uses some beautiful cues Georges Delerue wrote for Truffaut (as well as retro pop like David Bowie’s 'Modern Love’.) But its '60s New Wavishness isn’t merely a matter of borrowings; this movie appears 'loose’, a thing of captured moments where traditional plotting seems of little consequence, but where specifics of character, setting, and culture are everything.

Actually that is a neat trick, for Frances Ha gives off an airy vibe of superficiality – call it 'hip’ if you like – that’s seductive and soothing. But on close inspection its rambling narrative, which moves from New York to Sacramento to Paris and New York again, is tight, pointed, and full of disquiet.

And that’s because of Gerwig. She plays Frances Haliday a 27-year-old woman coming up fast on 28 who feels she is going nowhere, and getting old too fast, who talks too much and spends a lot of time removing her own foot from her mouth. Frances seems helpless to help herself. Self-absorbed to a fault, she’s also lovably eager to please and terribly hard on herself, always broke and full of self-delusion. Indeed one of the film’s best jokes is that the voluptuous, graceless Frances has an ambition to make it as a pro dancer.

The most important thing in Frances’ life isn’t career, it’s her best pal and room-mate Sophie (Mickey Sumner). "We're the same person, with different hair," Frances likes to say. When Frances’ boyfriend asks her to move in, she declines because she doesn’t want to be apart from Sophie. This turns out to be a misjudgment because Sophie has an emotional life that excludes Frances: she has a boyfriend who she is serious about. Frances is devastated. The flatmates break up and Frances – moving from one unpromising domestic set-up to another – spends the rest of the film looking for a soft place to land while ruminating on the lies we tell ourselves about intimacy and friendship.

This is one movie where I don’t feel terrible about mobilising a cliché like 'the camera loves her’ in describing how Baumbach has directed his gaze at his leading actor. Gerwig, always a buoyant, natural presence, is perfectly luminescent here and that’s quite something since the part calls her to do any number of embarrassing things in pretty much every scene; from taking an emergency 2am pee from a subway platform to falling over in the street, to being so prattle-prone and ditzy it’s no wonder she is considered 'undateable’.

Frances Ha
abounds with pleasures; the epigrammatic punchy dialogue, the casual performances, the street shooting, the whole rhythm and flow is grin-inducing.

Critics have made a lot of its superficial resemblance to Girls, a comparison I find specious. As a movie experience – its mood, and how it looks, plays, feels, sounds – it simply isn’t anything like Dunham’s project. If anything it reminded me of Withnail & I (1987), at least in terms of its big theme. Which is to say that Frances Ha is probably the best film about the precious sadness and joy of friendship I’ve seen since.

 

Watch 'Frances Ha'

9:30pm, Monday 30 March on SBS World Movies (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)

MA15+
USA, 2013
Genre: Comedy
Language: English
Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Adam Driver, Mickey Sumner, Michael Zegen
What's it about?
Frances (Gerwig) is a gangly 20-something who lives in New York, but is perennially broke, unfocussed and prone to mildly self-destructive behaviour. An apprentice for a dance company, Frances is also a klutz, but that does not stop her from chasing her dreams. From Noah Baumbach, writer/director of The Squid and the Whale and Marriage Story.

Frances Ha: Noah Baumbach interview

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Details

MA15+
1 hour 26 min
In Cinemas 15 August 2013,

Genres