Monday, July 22, 2013

‘Frances Ha’ (2012) directed by Noah Baumbach

At first glance Frances Ha doesn't exactly rock the indie dramedy boat.  The titular character is an aimless, kooky, off-beat yet slightly melancholic dancer struggling to fit in an adult world.  She’s the kind of person who yells “Ahoy sexy!” across the street to her friends, loves to play fight and has a reputation as ‘undateable’ despite being obviously beautiful and interesting.  So far, so Noah Baumbach, whose The Squid and The Whale and Greenberg  also featured a cast of kooky, offbeat yet slightly melancholic characters struggling to fit in the adult world.

Yet Frances Ha manages, by sheer force of the star and co-writer Greta Gerwig’s charisma, to rise above these twee cinematic connotations by intelligently examining what it means to be young and directionless.  Frances is going through what they condescendingly term the 'quarter life crisis': the late 20s transition from kidulthood to becoming a ‘proper’ adult. Large swathes of the film are spent very gently criticising shallow, unrealistic ambitions and pretensions with an tone that's both kind and surgically precise. Gerwig acts the hell out of this role, her performance is so strong that even when we roll our eyes at her lack of direction we stay entirely sympathetic to the very real, very recognisable terror she experiences, namely, the numb, existential neuroses that come when a person begins to realise that their options in life are for the first time beginning to shrink.

Frances (Greta Gerwig)
Baumbach's decision to shoot in black and white means the film looks absolutely beautiful. The high-contrast monochrome places the film straight into a conversational, urban tradition that has its roots firmly in Godard and Truffaut's La Nouvelle Vague, as well as a large visual debt to Woody Allen’s Manhattan.  Frances Ha is a perfect continuation of this style, an attempt to capture the conversations, fashions and attitudes of big city intelligentsia, to preserve in aspic a world that changes as often as the wind.

In these terms Frances Ha succeeds.  The faces of Baumbach and Gerwig's characters are illuminated by the soft glow of their smartphones and laptop screens, and the omnipresent soundtrack is the default iPhone ‘email received’ and ‘text received’ sound.  This is a cinematic world where character's cards are declined at restaurants and they have to hurriedly run through the streets frantically searching for a cash machine while their dinner partner sits, picking at their smartphone in boredom.  Frances is constantly flat-hunting: and suffers the excruciating problem of having flat-mates who earn more than you do, and begin to want to move to nicer neighbourhood, leaving you behind.  I know this stuff!  I've lived this stuff!

Frances Ha is a friendly but cautionary tale, these instantly recognisable elements plugging us straight into the emotional heart of the film. Though clad in cool indie aesthetic, this is a  film that wants to help us out, to guide us through this late 20s minefield. As we track her successes and failures, her good and bad decisions, we recognise Frances' story as a modern, humanist parable.

We’re shown that standing still doesn't work; people and places move on without you. At the beginning of the film she’s asked to move in with her boyfriend, and declines, preferring to remain with her best friend.  Her job as a dancer becomes increasingly unstable as the narrative develops – culminating in a scene instantly recognisable to the audience of the friendly, smiling manager popping by to see you, buttering you up with praise and then hitting you with bad news. We see the disturbing feeling you get when you realise that your friends aren't talking about one night stands and crappy dates, they're talking about marriage and having children. It's the Red Queen effect, you have to run as fast as you can to stay in the same place, and Frances can't keep up.

Regression is not an option either.  Frances looks happy and serene when she returns to the family home for Christmas, but this is an illusion, a cosy domesticity that can only last through a holiday.  Though her parents are kind and supportive they have their own problems.  Similarly, she can’t go back into education – an abortive and depressing summer spent working at her former college only underlines Frances' age in comparison to the students around her, the dorm rooms that once represented a new adult freedom now look more like prison cells.

Slightly more metatextually you can't even find solace by retreating into iconography.  On a whim, Frances spends a weekend in Paris.  Considering the films this is inspired by you expect the trip to showcase the best in detached French cinematic cool.  There are moments of prettiness, but the trip is largely disastrous.  Jetlagged, Frances spends most of the trip asleep, only leaving her flat to aimlessly walk the night-time streets of Paris.  These streets, usually dripping with moody B&W New Wave beauty, are aggressively deromanticised – a world of concrete underpasses and graffiti hardly dissimilar from the New York she’s spent so much money temporarily escaping from.  It's a bit on the nose, but the film is clearly making a direct point when our lead misses out on dinner with a boy who looks "just like Jean-Pierre Léaud!".  But the most arch moment is when Frances, bored out of her mind, goes to the cinema to see the Shrek spin-off Puss in Boots.  Up yours, Godard.

Baumbach and Gerwig gently show us, with humour and grace, that the only positive option for those adrift in the purgatory between childhood and adulthood is to move forwards. This sincerity is welcome and rare in a genre that's usually draped thick layers of irony.  When we see Frances succeed, it’s not portrayed as selling out but as a necessary part of growing up. Importantly, this isn't a downer ending.  Frances learns that if you're handed a big steaming heap of shit, the best thing to do is fertilise your garden with it. Use bad experiences as fuel for expressing yourself: transform pain into art.

Despite Frances being an obviously privileged character that just barely falls on the right side of insufferable, the audience can't help but like her.  If you do find her unbearably self-obsessed and annoying – well, my advice is to take a look in the mirror sometime.  This is a witty, beautiful and intelligent film that’s refreshingly unafraid to satirise its target audience. Frances' problems aren't universal, but for the target audience (which I'm bang in middle of) it's all too relevant stuff.  We sympathise with her because we are her.

Frances Ha is on general release from July 26th

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