Wednesday, 24 July 2013

GFT programme note: Frances Ha

You could do a lot worse than going to see Frances Ha, out on Friday. Here's an article on the film, written for the Glasgow Film Theatre...


Noah Baumbach’s previous film as director, 2010’s Greenberg, dryly detailed the midlife crisis of its eponymous sad-sack protagonist Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) – bitterly disappointed with life and determined to ‘do nothing for a while’. In a rare moment of self-awareness (a break from the self-absorption that otherwise characterises his interactions with others), Greenberg recounts the diagnosis for his acute malaise proffered by one of his many therapists. ‘I have trouble living in the present,’ he repeats, ‘so I linger in the past.’ The titular character of Frances Ha is in most respects the polar opposite of Greenberg’s embittered misanthrope, but this sense of arrested development is carried over, as understudy dancer Frances (Greta Gerwig) navigates the rocky road from free-wheeling post-collegiate life to grown-up responsibility.

Frances is first seen play-fighting with best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), establishing Frances Ha as that relative rarity: a mainstream film about female friendship, in which heterosexual romance is peripheral to character development, not central; not so much a rom-com as a kind of platoni-com, in which Frances’s love for her BFF trumps that shown towards any of her romantic entanglements (actual or potential). ‘We are like a lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex any more’ jokes Frances of their closeness, with a montage of their comfortably fun life together – rife with in-jokes and casual intimacy – underscoring their bond. But it soon becomes apparent that this sorority of two – forged on the college campus and continued into their late-twenties – cannot continue at the same intensity for much longer. Life moves on – a fact only one party seems ready to acknowledge.

The imbalance presents itself early, when Frances requests the equivalent of a comforting bed-time story (‘tell me the story of us’). ‘Again?’ replies Sophie, evidently less enthusiastic about the tradition than Frances but nonetheless obliging: in the future, the duo will continue to live together, having achieved their respective professional goals (in themselves indicative of differing degrees of practicality: for Sophie, a career in publishing; for Frances, success as a ballet dancer). Their story is presented not as a ‘what if?’ to pass the time, but a reassurance to Frances that everything will turn out fine; a reassurance heavily invested in their enduring friendship. So when Sophie subsequently announces that she’s moving out, her blithely delivered bombshell carries significantly more weight than the earlier, equivalent breakup scene between Frances and boyfriend Dan (Michael Esper) – a breakup that, notably, stems from a disagreement over whether the couple should move in together. The relevance of ‘home’ (treated as a kind of shorthand indicator of maturity) is integral to Frances Ha’s narrative, which is structured around its protagonist’s shifting living arrangements. As Frances regresses from flat share to couch-hopping to a dorm at her alma mater – each change of address signposted by an intertitle – her propensity to grow down instead of up is abundantly apparent. In one of the film’s comic highlights, her nomadic phase also takes in a stopover in Paris; squeezed into a single weekend, the impulsive trip passes in an anticlimactic blur of jetlag – a neat metaphor for a character who risks letting opportunities pass her by while chasing pipedreams.

But to revisit the Greenberg comparison (incidentally, the film that introduced Baumbach and Gerwig, who have since become a couple), there’s a distinct difference between the respective protagonists’ refusals (or inabilities) to act their ages. What was tragic in Greenberg is more optimistic in Frances Ha; where Greenberg’s behaviour was emphatically self-destructive, Frances is fun and vibrant – prone to bad decisions and beset with mild neuroses, but resilient with it. As a result, Frances Ha is by some margin the softest of Baumbach’s recent films, with the caustic edge of The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Margot at the Wedding (2007) barely perceptible. In this regard, Greta Gerwig’s input as co-writer and lead actor cannot be understated. Frances Ha may bear the hallmarks of its director’s milieu – pin-sharp dialogue; educated, bourgeois characters prone to off-the-cuff literary criticism; an overt admiration for Woody Allen (made clearer than ever by the Manhattan-inspired cinematography) – but Baumbach is not the film’s sole auteur. Amongst other things, a case for Gerwig’s authorial voice might invoke the scene in which Frances returns home for the holidays (shot in Gerwig’s hometown of Sacramento, with her actual parents in the screen roles of ‘Mom’ and ‘Pop’ and family and friends populating the background); or, indeed, the fact that Frances is in many respects an extension of a screen persona found throughout the actress’s filmography.

Not that there has been any sense of competition between the two for an increased share in Frances Ha’s successes: in interviews, both stress the closeness of the collaboration, with Baumbach likening it to a good conversation in which ‘you can’t really remember who started it or who said what’.[1]  Nonetheless, the film’s promotional materials are unequivocal: ‘Greta Gerwig is Frances Ha’. In one amusingly awkward dinner scene, Frances is compelled to apologise to her date, saying ‘I’m so embarrassed – I’m not a real person yet.’ Yet, through Gerwig’s naturalistic performance, the character always feels ‘real’ – quirky, but never in danger of falling into the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ trope (scathingly summarised by critic Nathan Rabin as ‘that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature’ designed ‘to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life’[2]). It clarifies why she’s been the recipient of effusive praise in recent years, with The New York Times suggesting she ‘may well be the definitive screen actress of her generation’ in a 2010 profile,[3] and Sight and Sound declaring her ‘the most exciting actress in America’ on its current cover. Moreover, it shows up just how desperately underused she is in her occasional studio features – a world Gerwig appears in no great hurry to return to. As well as having a solo directorial effort in the offing, Gerwig’s already completed another (currently untitled) NYC-set collaboration with Baumbach; should it re-capture one ounce of Frances Ha’s lithe spark, a fresh wave of plaudits seems a given.

Christopher BuckleResearcher and journalist
July 2013

[1] Chitra Ramaswamy (2013) ‘Noah Baumbach talks Frances Ha’ The Scotsman, accessed 20/07/13 at
[2] Nathan Rabin (2007) ‘The Bataan Death March of Whimsy Case File #1: Elizabethtown’, The A.V. Club, accessed 20/07/13 at,15577/
[3] A.O. Scott (2010) ‘No Method to her Method’, The New York Times, accessed 20/07/13 at

No comments:

Post a Comment