I’ll be honest, for the first fifteen minutes I thought this film was going to be excruciating.
It’s filmed in black and white. It is. Arch. As. Fuck. Its main characters are New York-based graduates who say things like ‘Do you know what Virginia Woolf book this reminds me of?’ in a heightened, loud version of kookiness that really, really made me want to shave every single one of them bald.
And then a music cue made me laugh.
And then, six movies into the film festival, something marvellous happened. A character who was being a dick was treated like they were being a dick. Embarrassment, retribution, arguing and rebuttal ensued, then a character study; reflecting a certain age and background with meticulous detail. The film becomes, like its title character, an endearing mass of contradictions.
Noah Baumbach writes and directs. Greta Gerwig writes and stars. They have their cake and eat it, with characters quipping fly banter like we’re in Jeff Goldblum’s mind, all the while the crisp monochrome making them look like flawless beauties of a bygone age of cinema. It’s like they all think they’re Marilyn Monroe and Cary Grant, rather than pipe-cleaner limbed hipsters amusing themselves.
As with Baumbach’s collaborator, Wes Anderson, the music is deployed not only to provoke melancholy but also accentuate the slight weirdness. Someone leaving a building as if no-one is watching will receive a snatch of triumphant fanfare. Evidently quirky characters are deployed entertainingly (there’s some beautiful lying from Michael Zegen’s Benji, who could be annoying in lesser hands), but soon it becomes evident that this bunch of late twenty-somethings are undergoing a period of upheaval: Frances’ best friend and flatmate Sophie moves out.
She spends some time in limbo, unable to pursue her dreams of dancing as part of a company (it is unstated, but dialogue implies that she simply isn’t good enough) and not having quite enough money to pay the rent. Frances is impetuous, outgoing, but also crushingly self-aware. Having surrounded herself with people who understand, enjoy and indulge her explicit whimsy, once Sophie moves out she is forced into situations involving people less tolerant of her. The conversations here are awkward, insightful, and accepting of a world beyond your arty, flighty types, but still part of the middle class, the bourgeois. All of a sudden Sophie is no longer a best friend, but instead a painful yardstick. All of Frances’ clevernesses and observations fall on deaf ears, and she notices the comparative appearance of their lives to outside observers.
This is a textbook display of making a lead character flawed but interesting, and within the context of suburban well-to-do types, surprisingly brutal. Benji observes how Frances isn’t genuinely poor, in the first of several statements that will become painful. The same character later meets Frances in the street with a new partner, having previously admitted that he was romantically interested in her but now considers them both to be “undateable”. Deadpan wit gives way to pathos, and then bathos, just so reviewers with bad memories are forced to look up the distinction before filing copy.
Faced with the reality of her job prospects and increasing isolation from understanding company, she retreats into travel. The locations of each section are stated in chapter headings, but journeys away to family in Sacramento start with celebration and sweaters, take in church services and old friends, but quickly give way to boredom. By this point the quality of Greta Gerwig’s performance is becoming apparent. Willing to be irritating when necessary, but with both the comic and dramatic touch to pull off the increasing awkwardness and melancholy, she holds the entire film together, on screen for nearly the entirety.
An escape is offered, but Frances is in denial at this stage. She’s already lied about her situation and embarked on a financially risky trip to Paris (taken purely on impulse after striking lucky with accommodation after lying at a party), which she spends alone. There is an undercurrent of practical yet bleak advice, stating that unless we surround ourselves with like-minded individuals our relationship with the world is estranged and distant, meaning that our enjoyment is based on reflected joy from other people’s responses in body language and facial expressions. It’s almost like Adam Smith’s moral philosophy in this respect, only with jokes about male sexual fulfilment and Gremlins 3.
With pop culture references and a sense of social displacement, this is Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson’s style brought to the subject matter of Spaced. At the age of only twenty-seven Frances is anchor-less in the world, post-graduation, and is faced with younger people than her assuming she shares their age and values due to her immaturity. It’s very reminiscent of Spaced‘s themes in this respect, but only if Tim and Daisy were played by Matt Smith and Karen Gillan, and lived in Brighton.
Ultimately, Frances Ha is about finding a place in the world of the artistic, and possibly indulges itself to optimism and comedy-narrative tradition by allowing a possible romantic resolution on top of its eponymous heroine’s character arc.
While it can appeal to the drifting wannabe-intellectuals it depicts, it also fails to judge such a lifestyle, enabling those who dislike it to at least sympathise with the characters’ plights. It’s not going to evoke this in everybody, but despite the stylish New York credentials of the creators, the message is not redemptive, but practical. If your dreams are not attainable, it says, abandon them, adapt, and get yourself some better ones.
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