Film Title: Frances Ha
Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Charlotte d'Amboise, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver, Michael Esper
Running Time: 86 min
Not for the first time, Noah Baumbach sets the audience wondering just what he thinks of his own, often-precious Bohemian characters. In his breakthrough picture, The Squid and the Whale (2005), the director managed a perfect balance of exasperation and empathy. But Margot at the Wedding (2007) failed to elicit any sympathy for a gang of self-absorbed snoots who deserved mass annihilation by typhoon (or something even more painful).
After alienating a few more fans with the difficult, off-centre Greenberg (2010), Baumbach – writing with his lead actor and romantic partner Greta Gerwig – looks to have made a conscious return to independent roots. Shot in silvery monochrome by Sam Levy, the hilarious, touching Frances Ha is lubricated by the same juice that allowed Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à Part to slip so smoothly through the streets of Paris. Gerwig makes a glorious klutz of the title character: an Annie Hall who feels less in thrall to male mentors. The picture fizzes with all the right energies.
Most importantly, Baumbach has, for the first time since Squid, found the correct vantage from which to view his characters. Frances and her posse of pampered hipsters are allowed to be ridiculous, but they are, with a few exceptions, rendered sympathetically. We don’t hold out much hope for one layabout’s “spec sequel to Gremlins”. But we don’t exactly wish him disaster. And so on.
Watch the trailer - Frances Ha
Frances herself is a gorgeous creation. A child of privilege with a slippery hold on the value of money – despite being “broke”, she still manages to arrange a weekend in Paris at a few days’ notice – this aspiring dancer finds her life kicked off-beam when Sophie, her much- loved flatmate, announces that she is moving out of their (where else?) Brooklyn apartment. Thus begins a life-changing meander through the boroughs, north to Poughkeepsie, west to California and, briefly, east to the old world.
Everywhere she goes, Frances encounters people who can’t quite see the smart, decent person hiding beneath the spasms of social ineptitude. She has a serious fight with Sophie and returns to her conservative parents in Sacramento. Now properly destitute, she takes a job waitressing at Vassar, her alma mater, and is embarrassed to discover that mere staff can’t attend classes.
The key moment in Frances Ha comes when, kicked hither and thither by circumstance, Frances elects to embark on that disastrous trip to Paris. It’s a hugely amusing episode that clarifies all that is silly and all that is sweet about the protagonist. Demonstrating an attitude to the quaintness of European transport that would not seem out of place on National Lampoon’s Vacation, Baumbach propels her into a tiny lift with a muddy A4 window and up to a borrowed apartment, where she stares hopelessly at a copy of A la Recherche du temps Perdu.
Eventually, friendless, lonely and confused, Frances saunters to a cinema and inquires when Puss in Boots begins. There is something wretchedly poignant about somebody who tries so hard to be grown up and ends up seeking consolation with a film about a talking cat.
Frances Ha is, for all those geographical diversions, very much about New York City. The intoxicating monochrome recalls both Woody Allen’s Manhattan and the older films to which that serious comedy gestured. This version is a fantastic, timeless place inhabited by idiot geniuses who appear to earn money simply by passing air through their lungs.
An actor with enough guile to seem entirely guileless, Gerwig adeptly inhabits a character forced to accept certain uncomfortable truths about the magic kingdom. She doesn’t exactly grow up. But she eventually manages to wrap a tolerable degree of reality around her stubborn delusions. Not all of us can claim so much.