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Frances Ha

Posted by martinteller on June 24, 2013

Frances (Greta Gerwig) is a 27-year-old living in New York with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner).  She’s an aspiring dancer, but as an understudy with a minor company, at her age her prospects aren’t looking good.  She still has hopes, but is hobbled by unrealistic expectations, lack of foresight, a general inability to get her shit together, and perhaps a little too much reliance on Sophie to define her own personality.  When Sophie — who has a more profitable and stable career with a big publisher — moves to a more expensive neighborhood, Frances finds herself floundering even more.  She moves in with a pair of young men (Adam Driver, Michael Zegen) who are rich enough to be idle… a luxury Frances can’t afford, but she lacks the motivation and the sense to resist.  Frances continues to act like life is somehow going to suddenly hand her a golden ticket.

First of all, let’s get all the film geek stuff out of the way.  It’s surely no coincidence that the character is named “Frances”.  The film is wall-to-wall with references to French cinema.  A poster of Small Change on the wall.  Pieces of Georges Delarue score, including several instances of the light, memorable melody from The 400 Blows.  A mention of a guy who looks like Jean-Pierre Leaud.  An entire sequence lifted from Mauvais Sang as homage (if you’ve seen Carax’s movie, you can probably guess which sequence).  Those are just the most direct references.  The black and white photography, although it probably evokes Manhattan more than anything else (and yes, there is something Diane Keaton-esque to Gerwig’s performance), looks like it could have been shot by Raoul Coutard.  The relationship between Frances and Sophie is like Celine and Julie, gone sour.  The dialogue is like Eric Rohmer doing mumblecore (without the mumbly bits, thankfully).  The loose structure, more driven by character than particular plot developments, is all very nouvelle vague.

So for a cineaste, there are delights to be found just in connecting the dots between Baumbach’s film and the French movies he’s clearly drawing from.  But there’s also delights in the wit of the script and Gerwig’s portrayal of an awkward woman who isn’t where she expected to be in life and doesn’t know how to get there.  Frances is kind of pathetic, in a way that can be endearing.  However, it can also be frustrating and there are moments where you start to wonder why you should care about this young woman who can appear to be so lazy, deluded and downright foolhardy.

But I found that despite these flashes of annoyance with the character, Gerwig kept winning me back.  She’s stuck in college and in a way, doesn’t everyone kind of want to be stuck in college?  I know I do at times.  And I know at 27 I was just beginning to get my shit together.  She does experience some measure of growth.  How much growth depends on how you interpret the ending.  Someone in our film group proposed that it could be a fantasy.  I like that reading, because if taken at face value as reality, it seems like too big a leap for Frances to make.  Like there were some scenes missing.

I was pretty entertained by the movie.  It’s not doing anything groundbreaking, but I think it’s an enjoyable and well-written script by Baumbach and Gerwig, notwithstanding some occasional irritation with Frances.  The French New Wave flavors and tributes appealed to me, and Gerwig’s performance is often quite special (the other actors, not so much).  Not very groundbreaking, but a fun and funny character study, with some nice observations about friendship, youth culture and ambition.  Rating: Good (77)

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10 Responses to “Frances Ha”

  1. JamDenTel said

    Early on in the film especially, I had a hard time getting into it because I found the characters to be frustrating and irritating. By film’s end, I had been more or less won over, but I mentioned my initial issues to the friend I’d seen it with. He contended that it was a very accurate depiction of the specific subculture Frances inhabits (one which I have no experience with, obviously–it’s also worth noting this was my first Baumbach film), and with that in mind, my opinion of the film shifted more comfortably to the favorable side of the spectrum, and I’d definitely like to check it out again.

    • It felt pretty accurate to me. Some of the Frances/Sophie dialogue comes off as forced.

    • Anonymous said

      Fantastic review. Can’t wait to read more of your critiques. Wonderful writing.

      IMO, Baumbach accurately captured the lifestyle and malaise of the sub-culture that Frances exists within. However, it’s an unattractive one for me. Not to be boastful, but most young people in my social circle are motivated, ambitious, creative, intelligent, and bold…and they also know how to have a ton of fun. So it was difficult to empathize with Frances, as I thought she was just kind of lazy. I found it unfortunate that Baumbach didn’t present a character who was both motivated and fun-loving. Instead, he made these traits mutually exclusive.

      • Allan said

        Oops…that was written by me, Allan Luebke 🙂

      • Allan – thanks for commenting, thanks for the kind words and thanks for leading the group this week! (when I led last week, I also strayed from the strict thumbs up/down thing… don’t tell Josh!)

        Wouldn’t you say that Sophie manages to balance motivation and fun? I think she makes a pretty good counterpoint to Frances. Perhaps that’s why Frances clings to her so much… she thinks she’s either going to pull herself up to Sophie’s level or drag her down to her own.

        I agree there are times when Frances is not very sympathetic, which is why I didn’t rate the film higher. But I do kind of understand her mindset.

  2. Dennis said

    Well, I think many are called and few are chosen, as the cliche goes, and that she works very hard at her dancing and as often happens in life, we dream and since we only have one life to live, we have the courage to keep reaching for the dream. The happenstance factor figures even for those who “get rich and/or famous.” I think she finally settled for what she could finally find — a teaching role. What she managed to do was keep her shit together well enough to keep her integrity and her dream and have a lot of significant performance gigs, even as an understudy. No “bad relationship” or whatever that so many single men and women have muddled into by the end of their 20s. I think the most of us who reacted against her “silly dream” were ourselves protecting our faith in the American dream that by golly, if you work hard enough, you can find a “good job” close to the one you would like. That is not a dream that is as plausible, quite apart from fields like theatre, dance, and professional sports, anymore, alas

    • Thank you for commenting, Dennis, and thanks for your insights at the meetup. I think the only thing I might disagree with is this: “she works very hard at her dancing”. She might very well work hard at it, but we don’t see much evidence of that.

      • Dennis said

        Yes, the screen-writer/director focused on her keeping the dream alive, not on the nitty gritty of all of her practice and study . . . sort of like showing an basketball dreamer playing or scrimmaging but not doing the drills. . . it was only an hour and 25 minutes or so, so maybe they made a mistake not showing that she “earned” a right to dream and have a realistic chance — that is, if my take is reasonable.

  3. CMrok93 said

    Good review Martin. Surprisingly, it was a Noah Baumbach movie that made me happy and joyful with the life I live, and the one I might continue on living. Never, ever thought that would happen.

    • Thanks for commenting! I wouldn’t say the movie had THAT effect on me, but it was fun. And it certainly is a nice break from the cynicism of The Squid and the Whale (the only other Baumbach I’ve seen).

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