Frances Ha (2012, Noah Baumbach)
A warning seems in order, first of all, that if your takeaway from Greenberg, Margot at the Wedding and The Squid in the Whale was what jerks all the major characters were, there isn’t much reason to think that Greta Gerwig’s Frances, despite being a malleable and tirelessly, awkwardly pleasant creation, will wear on you any more fondly. For those who thought Roger Greenberg was painfully believable and familiar and full-dimensional in the best way, prepare for more of that agonizing discomfort you love so much — in a film that, like no other I’ve seen in some time, will make you want to burst out the door singing.
Frances’ life is a perpetual mess; she isn’t dissimilar to the slightly more self-assured California transport Gerwig portrayed in Greenberg. The NYC version is a good-hearted, spirited weirdo doing her best but also flummoxed and overwhelmed by professional life, grownup life, life in the city, etc. Some will roll their eyes at her and the way she relates to others, but for many of us this sense of constant hit-or-miss improvisation and an only tentative understanding of how the fuck to relate to other people is how we live our lives, every day. It’s specifically for this reason that Frances Ha has struck directly at the heart of a certain subset of people for whom Frances comes across as a kindred spirit, whose optimism and palpable fears about the life unfurling in front of her are eerily familiar. But that’s less important on some level than the degree to which this film, in complete contrast to the three excellent prior efforts by director Noah Baumbach (who wrote this with Gerwig), is a celebration. It floats and dances and saunters like a musical, which in some ways it is — the tones of songs I never knew I loved (David Bowie’s “Modern Love” and Paul McCartney’s “Blue Sway”) and songs I feel like I loved before I was born (Hot Chocolate’s peerless “Every 1’s a Winner” and the Rolling Stones’ “Rocks Off”) boom out with alternate spontaneity, breeze and effortlessness and the sense, in one delightful moment, that Frances is doing her best to try to let the music drive her into a fit of, y’know, living.
It’s inescapable that your life prior to the point at which you see this picture will probably determine a lot of how you feel about it. I never went to college but I sure as fuck went on trips by myself in an attempt to network or come to life that were all for nothing, so Gerwig’s melancholic solo journey to Paris and back without interacting with bloody anyone hit close, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg — longing for a creative outlet that seems impossible, longing to sustain connections that beg in some ways to spread apart, looking for what Brian Wilson called “the people that I won’t leave behind,” it’s all here and all so terribly sad, and yet the film feels so floaty and ecstatic. That’s no small achievement, and it wanders back to something that became apparent in Greenberg: Baumbach is one of our very best living filmmakers in terms of being able to present simply how life feels. Hal Ashby was capable of it; so was Jonathan Demme. Baumbach is just as easily able to write and stage moments that feel, weeks later, so vivid as if they happened to you. And maybe they did.
The more superficial connection here is to Nouvelle Vague; Baumbach liberally uses Georges Delerue music from Truffaut and de Broca movies, and is it hypocritical if I find this a luminously correct choice after all that griping I did about Bernard Herrmann and The Artist a couple of days ago? I hope not, because it seems contextually proper for this film to so sublimely quote its sources and bounce and play-fight on top of them, in a manner of speaking. The stakes were higher in Breathless and The 400 Blows, undoubtedly, but what I detect more importantly is the same sense of life and speed and exuberance so familiar from those early Godard and Truffaut films, moreover from A Hard Day’s Night (which was directly influenced by them) and The 39 Steps (which anticipated them). That wouldn’t be possible if the film were not black & white, and it wouldn’t be possible if it were not to some degree about the city in which it’s set. What these films share is a zest for life — it has a vague story, if a story at all: Frances drifts from place to place and eventually, very tentatively, finds some level of fulfillment as her best friend Sophie (the astounding Mickey Summer) copes with what one senses is a kind of self-preserving move into an adulthood that Frances finds alienating — not unlike the change in the central relationship in Ghost World.
But whereas Enid immediately began to lose her way in Ghost World, Frances’ big growth in this film is the way she learns to appreciate the meaningful elements of what in passing might seem like a frivolous existence — that is to say, she articulates (beautifully) and the film elucidates upon the actual feeling and importance of deep friendship. Frances Ha seems like a strange place for a monologue, and a strange place for a work of modern dance, but beneath the awkward dinner gatherings (which are painfully, wondrously awkward) and cheeky banter with the winning, scruffy roommates, Gerwig brings us to the emotional core when she talks about looking across the crowded room and seeing “your person.” Other directors have visualized this to bravura effect (William Wyler in The Best Years of Our Lives; Woody Allen in Manhattan) but Baumbach and Gerwig virtually bury the lede, and it’s a centralized and pure moment of catharsis after all the minor squabbles and victories Frances and Sophie have shared, and the degree to which neither of them can duplicate this connection elsewhere. Those of us who have a “person” are made to feel all the luckier.
The whole film is tirelessly lovely. Until I see it again, I cannot claim that it quite stands up to Greenberg, which was one of the most achingly real movies I’ve ever seen and had that marvelous hung-over feeling, like a second wind. Frances Ha, though it displays many of the same skills on the part of both Baumbach and Gerwig, is an entirely different experience: real and drunk and disappointed then hopeful, again like dancing. It finds the joy in opening the tax return envelope, or pissing on the subway; it observes things, mundane things mostly, about being alive that you never thought you’d see in a film. We saw it on our first full night in Manhattan this year at the IFC Center; even though we already basically knew we were going to love it, I can’t think of a more perfect first movie experience in NYC. The movie felt like we did — bouncing out the door and across the street with the usher humming along to Bowie, on our way to the next weird address.