FRANCES HA B+
USA (86 mi) 2012 d: Noah Baumbach Official site
A smaller film from Baumbach, a drama of restless anxiety, much like the city of New York movies of Woody Allen with Diane Keaton in the 70’s like ANNIE HALL (1977) and MANHATTAN (1979), shot in the supposedly more realistic medium of Black and White by Sam Levy, where the combustible energy of the city is as much a character as any of the people living in it, a film that can briefly be described as a story that pays tribute to life in your 20’s and to New York City. While it’s true, Baumbach mostly makes films about the loathsome lives of dissatisfied middle to upper class white people, who one supposes have their own unique problems dealing with the emptiness and boredom of their lives while others struggle with the crippling effects of an actual financial crisis, his films are often difficult to sit through because of the undercurrent of unpleasantness in the bitingly sarcastic wit on display, showing us with pinpoint accuracy the face of middle class disillusionment. One of the best writers working today, he has a special ear for dialogue that gives the film a theatrical effect, like a modernist stage play, where perhaps the closest today may be Richard Linklater’s conversational romance trilogy of BEFORE SUNRISE (1995), BEFORE SUNSET (2004), and BEFORE MIDNIGHT (2013). An interesting collaboration brought this together, as co-writers Baumbach and Gerwig have been dating since late 2011, where their differing perspectives on each other’s age group, as he’s 14 year older, only make things more interesting. Quite a contrast to Ben Stiller’s detestable lead in GREENBERG (2010), or nearly all of Baumbach’s previous self-loathing lead roles, where according to Helen Gramates, former Chicago Film Festival programmer, “Baumbach couldn't really make the character loathsome or unsympathetic if his girlfriend is portraying/writing her!”
Greta Gerwig rose to prominence through the Mumblecore movement, starring in Joe Swanberg movies, like NIGHTS AND WEEKENDS (2008), which she co-wrote, directed, and starred with Swanberg before becoming the *it* girl of indie films, similar to Chloë Sevigny in the 90’s, working with Whit Stillman in Damsels in Distress (2011), the more mainstream Lola Versus (2012), and Woody Allen in To Rome With Love (2012). In each she plays a variation on the independent woman role originated by Keaton, vibrantly energetic, intellectually curious, but always appearing neurotic, never at ease with herself, where physically she’s a bit awkward and something of a klutz, where in the storyline she’s continually challenged by the unwelcome effects of making the wrong choices. A single girl without any serious love interests, Gerwig as Frances is in nearly every scene of the film, where her life is equally consumed by her roommate and best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), where they’d be lost and alone without each other, considering themselves identical twins in mind and spirit, though they’re nothing alike. While Sophie has a stable job she likes working in a publishing house, Gerwig frets about never having the kind of money her friends seem to have, supporting herself with odd jobs as an apprentice dancer and part-time choreographer, but never invited to join the dance company, simply filling in when there’s available work, usually during holiday concerts. Though she thinks of herself as poor, quickly corrected by Sophie claiming “that’s an insult to actual poor people,” she’s a college graduate whose parents live in the affluent suburbs of Sacramento, California, where at some point she has to learn to stop tapping into their resources whenever there’s a need to bail her out of financial jams. Frances is in this in-between stage of prolonged childhood and becoming a young adult.
When Sophie announces she’s moving out of the apartment to move in with a rich but relatively unlikable guy from Wall Street named Patch (Patrick Heusinger), who says things like (Frances says in a gruff monotone voice) “I gotta take a leak,” this leaves Frances without a home, going into a free-fall of one mini-disaster after another, each one more embarrassing than the last. The ability to stand on her own does not seem to be one of her many talents, but she’s never at a loss for words, or an interesting opinion, turning into something of a pathological liar creating a more interesting fake life to cover her abysmally sad real one. Stylistically, the film resembles the seemingly improvisational nature of the French New Wave, where the quirky state of mind of Frances is expressed throughout by familiar refrains of the Georges Delerue music from KING OF HEARTS (1966), adding an air of innocence and something adorably timeless about Frances, whose playful sense of humor masks her bundle of nerves and somewhat self-chosen insecurity, yet unlike Sophie, she’s not afraid to take risks and refuses to surrender her youthful ideals. One sequence in particular shows Frances twirling, dancing, and leaping through the streets of New York to the music of David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” paying homage to Denis Levant in the Léos Carax film Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood) (1986), seen here, Modern Love YouTube (2:01), although Levant sprints to the right in an endlessly long, unbroken shot while Gerwig runs to the left in much less impressive fashion with several noticeable edits. So while this smaller film may not live up to the artistic ideal of Carax or cinema greatness, Frances proves that misadventures are valuable life experiences and are part of the growing process, where in her own small way she remains true to herself. Small victories are worth savoring, where you don’t always have to risk Don Quixote disillusionment and defeat by insisting upon fighting the larger and unwinnable battles.