Noah Baumbach’s films tend to leave me a tad unfazed (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg). They’re just okay. He’s not the golden god of indie filmmaking some have made out. And his collaborations with Wes Anderson (who I do, ever so slightly, revere) elicited the latter’s weakest features (The Life Aquatic). So his most recent picture comes as pleasant surprise. For all its slightness, self-conscious quirkiness and French New Wave referencing, Frances Ha is an immensely likeable little film. Much of that may be down to the luminous presence of lead actress Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote the script with beau Baumbach.
Gerwig also appeared in Baumbach’s previous film, Greenberg. Her presence underscores the much over-used but unfortunately most appropriate epithet for this director’s mode; quirky. Frances Ha reeks of quirk. At times the soundtrack choices are just too much, suggesting Baumbach’s is dead set on the picture spontaneously combusting with loveable eccentricity. But Gerwig ensures that its heart remains intact, portraying her titular oddball with accompanying headstrong goofiness and an insight that outweighs Frances’ more infuriating qualities.
Frances is a struggling dancer, hitting her late-twenties (the film consistently jokes that she looks older than she is, to her vague dismay) and apparently accepting of a lifestyle where she hasn’t yet made it, got ahead or found her groove. She continues to nurse dream scenarios of success while taking comfort in a near-symbiotic relationship (they’re the same person but with different hair) with best pal and flatmate Sophie (Mickey Summer). Frances and her boyfriend split up because she is reluctant to part with Sophie, but when the latter moves out Frances is faced with trying to maintain her non-compromising but non-descript inclinations. She moves in with a couple of artists (Adam Driver’s Lev and Michael Zegen’s Benji) and finds herself gadflying from place to place (her family in Sacramento, her old college for a summer job, sharing an apartment with a fellow dancer, a weekend break in Paris).
Throughout, we see the contrast between Frances, who maintains the yen to follow her chosen career but lacks the assertiveness to take hold of her life, and her estranged best friend. She frequently states what she doesn’t want, but allows herself to be carried along by a stream of fallow encounters because she lacks a strong enough grip on what she does. And then she concocts fabulations to make her lot seem better (as much for her own benefit as to sound impressive to others). Whereas Sophie, at least from Frances’ point of view, reduces herself at every turn in the service of an unfulfilling relationship. The strained friendship between the two is at the core of Frances Ha, and the keynote speech comes during an initially toe-curlingly uncomfortable dinner attended by Frances (where she appears completely out of touch with her peer group, either through age or cultural reference points). She gushes her difficult-to-explain vision of the pure relationship she seeks, encapsulated by a moment where one catches the eye of one’s soulmate across a crowded party and that unspoken exchange holds within it a dimension of reality all its own. The pay-off to this comes late in the proceedings, when it is clear that Sophie (however platonically) occupies that space, but as much as Frances yearns for mutuality it is not returned.
The film is frequently very funny, in that very necessarily quirky fashion. Frances’ notions and inability to set forward on her path see her trying to replay her relationship with Sophie with others (she and Benji become undateables together, the girl she moves in with staunchly refuses to engage in play fights) and her idiosyncratic outlook and encounters yield some very funny scenes and dialogue (her excuse for failure being that “I’m not a real person”, a running gag concerning maritime greetings, her mad dash for an ATM, Benji working on a spec script for Gremlins 3).
But the film’s strongest sensation is a lingering melancholy beloved of the indie relationship dramedy. Frances’ lifestyle cannot persist because she does not have the means (unlike the arty rich boys) or company to allow it. She must move on, however reluctantly. There’s a tone that will be familiar to those who’ve seen enough Woody Allen or Jim Jarmusch films, and the decision to shoot in black-and-white appears to consciously evoke those directors. Certainly, the accepting note where the film finishes, with Frances alone but in her own apartment, having engaged in some compromise (she has taken the secretarial job with the dance company) in order to pursue her career goals (she has put on a well-received performance piece) has the feel of mid-period Woody Allen (1980s). There his characters find a point not of despair or celebration but a furrow somewhere in between, and so are able to continue.
There’s also the effect of the muse to consider in Frances Ha’s fruitful germination. Just as Allen continually worked with then wife Mia Farrow, so Baumbach is inspired by his romantic relationship with Gerwig. It appears to have paid creative dividends. Elsewhere, some have found the French New Wave referencing a distraction but it’s so long since I inveigled myself in that period I was only intermittently aware of the references (some of the soundtrack choices, which I found an affectation too far, are doubtless specific references so no doubt one’s appreciation for them relates to one’s capacity for homage).
And one’s appreciation of Frances Ha as a whole will ultimately rest on one’s indulgence of Gerwig. I found her performance beguiling; a mass of foibles but with an essential soulfulness blazing through the mistakes and self-sabotaging misdirections. Gerwig also stars in Baumbach’s upcoming feature, which bodes well on this evidence. He may have traversed from slightly off-putting quirkiness to winning quirkiness.