Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Frances Ha (***)

Directed by Noah Baumbach


The cinema of Noah Baumbach is usually bitter, awkward in the most cringe-worthy definitions of the word, and derivative references from the various poles of the cinematic/literary world. It's hard not to watch the first third of his latest film, Frances Ha, and not think of Woody Allen's Manhattan. Then its hard not to look at its last third and not think of Francois Truffaut's Jules et Jim. All of these films are shot in stylish black & white, filled with neurotic characters running around metropolitan cities, and imbued with an enthusiastic spirit that seems to betray the desperate actions of the characters. Frances Ha is not as angry as Baumbach's previous work, and a lot of that shift is owed to its star, Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the script with Baumbach (and they also date, so there's that) and does a great job of putting Baumbach's usual annoyed, passive-agressive tone away and filling the void with a character that is so delightful as she is delusional.

Gerwig plays the titular Frances, a 27-year-old woman living in Brooklyn with her best friend, Sophie (Mickey Summer). The two girls are close in the way friends probably shouldn't be, sleeping in the same bed a lot of the time, going into Manhattan every weekend to get wasted to the point of peeing in the subway station, while making fun of the same people behind their back. Frances and Sophie are inseparable that even romantic relationships are hard for Francis. When her boyfriend, Dan (Michael Esper), asks her to move in with him and his cats, she very awkwardly says no. Because how could she leave Sophie? Dan is so put off by Frances' dependancy on Sophie that the relationship is ended on the spot. The tables are turned, though, when Sophie tells Frances that she plans on moving out herself, so she can move in with her new boyfriend, Patch (Patrick Heusinger), and Frances is left trying to figure out things on her own.

Professionally, Frances isn't doing much better. She apprentices at a modern dance company that's finding less and less use for her. She'd like to be part of the touring company, but her passive personality prevents her from really strenulously asking for anything with too much responsibility. When she moves into a new apartment with two rich young men - the womanizing Lev (Adam Driver) and the sarcastic Benji (Michael Zegen) - she finds herself reaching to try and pay rent. Very quickly, all the perks of Frances' life seems to dissipate. Her best friend is gone, her job is starting to phase her out, and the money she once had is dwindling. How does she respond? By spending Christmas with her parents in Sacramento and then before she's even in New York a week, she's off to Paris for a spontaneous weekend to spend time with a friend who ultimately doesn't answer her phone calls.

Frances' impulsiveness as a character is the fuel that runs this film, and I don't even mean to say that the frivolous nature of Gerwig's performance controls the tempo (though it very much does), but Baumbach actually edits the movie in a scatterbrained way that refracts the constant synapses exploding  in Frances' brain. This is where the influence of the French New Wave makes itself most prevalent. Scenes are put aside for montages and we're rarely left alone with one scene or one character (besides Frances) to really grasp who/what anyone really is. The way the New Wave filmmakers of the 60's were able to take Paris and create such an entrancing portrait through their characters, everyone that Frances meets seems to be some kind of comment of the good, bad and ugly concepts of New York City (again, like Woody Allen's Manhattan). *As a side note, it's hard to imagine anyone who isn't from some major metropolitan city (or at least have some longing, romantic notions of those locales) even remotely enjoying this movie.*

But Frances Ha is not nearly as cynical and cold as those New Wave films. It's emotional pull is far much closer to Manhattan, but in a lot of ways, it's even more self-conscious than that film. As Sophie walks around Frances' new apartment with Lev and Benji, she comments "This place is so aware of itself". Couldn't you say the same thing about this very movie? The film constantly pulling out some new quirk to keep your attention, hoping you don't turn away, like cinema by Dave Eggers. But all of this works, and it works splendidly well, because Gerwig realizes that Frances is a synecdoche for the film as a whole. This is a film about a woman grasping for love, attention and purpose. She's not perfect, and Baumbach and Gerwig do a pretty terrific job of pointing that out too, but as the film's protagonist she's just adorable enough to make this film a pretty intoxicating experience.

An obvious comparison for Frances Ha is 2001's Amelie, but Frances is running around NYC looking for something a lot more existential than some lover on a scooter. Amelie is a better film, but Frances Ha is quintessentially New York and quintessentially Greta Gerwig. Noah Baumbach made a career out of doing his best to make unwatchable characters watchable (remember the protagonists from Greenberg and Margot at the Wedding? Yeesh), but for the first time, he was able to put aside whatever neurotic hangups he felt compelled to imbue into all his lead characters and allowed this story to feel happy (even if Frances definitely is not). But the star here is Gerwig, always allowing a few glimpses of vulnerability to pierce through the uppity facade. Moments of Frances Ha seem a little too affected, and the ending seems more happy-go-lucky than the rest of the film would seem to suggest, but that's kind of what makes this movie so charming, isn't it? In the end, if you're going to be referencing several different films, might as well pick the really great ones.

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