Film of the week: Frances Ha

Floating on a magnificent performance by co-writer Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach’s retro portrait of modern love in New York could have used some sting.

Sophie Mayer
Updated:

from our August 2013 issue

Frances Ha, like Frances herself, is genial, charming and only occasionally prone to outbursts that might discomfit the viewer. While its New York locations, hipster milieu and sex comedy suggest vintage Woody Allen-ish ambitions, its lack of grounding in the present moment (aside from ubiquitous iPhones) leaves it feeling inconsequential.

Its lightness – both levity in the writing and a deft performance style – is a virtue given its focus on a dancer and choreographer, but also an irritant as Frances floats through New York. “I’m poor,” Frances notes when she is let go from the company she dances for. “That’s an insult to actual poor people,” her roommate Benji replies; the film then drops the subject of economic precarity. Frances’s search for housing and work is soft-focused by the film’s innate geniality: this is no Wendy and Lucy (2008).

Nor does it have to be, but irritation with the film arises from inevitable comparisons, many of which are present as self-aware references. Allen, Whit Stillman, Hal Hartley, Nicole Holofcener: there’s a genealogy of smart-yet-melancholy American indie cinema in which Frances Ha is positioning itself, and whose incisiveness it doesn’t share.

“Lena, I mean Leda,” stutters a character at a dinner party, about an absent acquaintance: Lena Dunham is Banquo’s ghost at this feast. Co-writers Greta Gerwig (who stars as Frances) and Noah Baumbach (who also directs) are as ready with the frank girl talk but less brazen. They are more concerned with the central, and unresolvable, issue of Girls (also crucial to Judd Apatow’s work): the shift from a rich homosocial lifestyle, associated with artistic freedom and hedonism, to unsatisfactory, exclusory heterosexual pair bonding, associated with loss and compromise.

Frances’s relationship with her best friend Sophie, including her return to work at Vassar College where they met, is the heart of the film, narratively taking the place of the expected straight romance/break-up. When Sophie moves out of their shared apartment, Frances enters a nomadic period that evokes another contemporary New York-set work concerned with sex, lies, new technology and uncomfortable roommates: Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011).

Stylistically, the films are worlds apart, not least because Frances Ha is shot in black-and-white. This aesthetic works fitfully: the interiors feel like digital colour images that have been greyscaled, but the exteriors are crisp. In fact it’s an exterior dance sequence that is both evocative of Shame and – perhaps because of the intertext – the most sublime moment in the film. Many reviewers noted the transfixing long take in McQueen’s film of its protagonist Brandon’s night-time jog. Frances, instead, runs, skips, leaps and fouettés irresistibly through Chinatown in daylight as a similar tracking shot keeps pace with her.

She’s running towards her new apartment, rooming with sculptor Lev and wannabe screenwriter Benji (in an in-joke, Benji is writing spec scripts for Saturday Night Live, one of Baumbach’s prior credits), who call the women they sleep with “sluts” – versions of Brandon in a minor key. That Frances is so full of joie de vivre is in pointed contrast to McQueen’s downbeat film. That her run is soundtracked by David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’ (which reappears over the end credits) suggests that the film is acknowledging its relation to contemporary statements on modern love such as Shame and Girls, while harking back to a less confrontational era.

Comfortably confident storytelling is a hallmark of Baumbach’s films, and there’s nothing disruptive or inventive here in filmmaking terms, bar the lack of colour – and the incorporation of dance. Frances’s development as a character away from her dyad with Sophie is linked with dance practice, and the film’s light-hearted resolution is an idealised climax where all Frances’s friends attend a dance programme in which she has choreographed a piece about how meetings between paired individuals become an ensemble. Sweetly obvious as it is, the dance is filmed impeccably in wide shot, with a real sense of the movement from rehearsal to realised work.

The serious commitment to filming dance may show the influence of its new popularity in American mainstream culture but could also be linked to another indie darling, Miranda July, whose most recent film The Future similarly focused on an apprentice dancer worrying about commitment. July’s more experimental, innovative and less together film was frustrating in its own ways, but the future that Gerwig and Baumbach propose for Frances seems all too easily achieved and normative, both psychologically and cinematically, compared to the sublime stalemate of July’s characters.

Frances Ha gets its title from the very end of the film, when Frances writes out her name for her mailbox but has to fold it so that her surname (which appears to be Halflady) is curtailed. It’s a neat joke about someone reinventing themselves, taking life lightly, and only halfway there. The ruefulness of that ‘Ha’ suggests that Baumbach’s audience and ambition remain attuned to SNL and The New Yorker, to which he is a contributor; the thoughtfulness and commitment of Gerwig’s performance in its shifts from chaotic exuberance to rigorous rehearsal suggest that she is the more interesting artist to watch.

And in the August 2013 issue of Sight & Sound

Girl, interrupted

A colloboration between director Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, “the Meryl Streep of mumblecore”, Frances Ha is a film that reconciles well-trodden themes of indie cinema with physical comedy, emotional depth and a knowing affection for the nouvelle vague. By Trevor Johnston.

Plus: Deconstructing Frances

Baumbach and Gerwig talk us through the key elements of Frances Ha.

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