‘Frances Ha’ Is Like the Short, Sad-Yet-Happy Pop Song the Director Intended

[18 December 2013]

By Jesse Hassenger

Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s Frances Ha, disguised as a trifle, is a great movie—maybe the year’s best. First conceived during a series of emails between the director and his Greenberg star Gerwig, shot on the cheap and the quick, and coming in just under 90 minutes, the movie is small even for an indie filmmaker. It’s halfway between Baumbach pictures like Margot at the Wedding and the DIY mumblecore movies Gerwig sometimes appears in. The story is small, too: it follows Frances (Gerwig) over a period of time, in or around New York City, trying to make a living as a dancer or, failing that, make a living at all.

This sounds like a movie with a love interest, and yet there is none, at least not of the corporeal variety. Frances Ha has the youthful energy of a scrappy romantic comedy, but its romance comes from living in New York in your 20s; the movie’s dizzying highs and heartbreaks all stem from it. Frances begins the movie with a boyfriend, but we only briefly glimpse him, as he takes a clear backseat to Sophie (Mickey Sumner), her friend from college and now roommate. “We’re the same person, with different hair,” Frances tells people, mostly after that doesn’t seem to be true.

The movie’s early minutes establish Frances’s relationship with Sophie as the most important in her life; it doesn’t get a lot of screen time by traditional measures, but Baumbach, Gerwig, and Sumner render those snippets of the girls’ life together so vividly that Sophie’s departure to Tribeca and a more posh, put-together lifestyle still stings. Unable to afford the apartment alone, Frances crashes with hipster-ish boys in Chinatown (Adam Driver and Michael Zegen); with her parents, during an extended Christmas visit; and with a non-friend from dance class (Grace Gummer), among other, less desirable locations. The movie keeps us up to date with onscreen text, marking time with the specificity of addresses rather than seasons.

The screenplay by Baumbach and Gerwig skips along, capturing moments and especially conversations, from the sound of politeness between semi-strangers saying goodbye (“I love your hair” / “I’ll let you know about my show!”) to the verbal tics of characters we come to know well. Frances’s mantra, especially early on as she breaks up with her boyfriend, is “I feel bad”, a variation on her character’s constant refrain of “I’m sorry” in Greenberg.

The interplay between this dialogue and the filmmaking has great rhythm. In Baumbach’s earliest comedies, including Kicking and Screaming (a post-grad masterpiece whose star, Josh Hamilton, appears here as a very together adult, naturally), Mr. Jealousy, and the barely-seen Highball, he mastered the art of joining a conversation mid-stream, with an out-of-context overheard line becoming its own form of deadpan joke. In Frances Ha, the nimble editing of Jennifer Lame accelerates this tendency, and these finely observed lines come even faster and snappier, the cuts on either end of them serving as both punchlines and punctuation.

The editing is just one way Frances Ha merges the verbal and the visual; it’s too fleet to rely on text alone, and Baumbach has long been an underrated technical filmmaker. Here he films in digital black and white (practically an oxymoron, because digital has no film stock and must be adjusted to lose its color) and in doing so achieves a film-like texture on a low budget: half gritty, half glamorous (the high-def Blu-ray tilts the image balance slightly back toward a digital texture, but it still looks great).

The best sequence follows Frances running, leaping, and dancing down the streets of Manhattan to the tune of David Bowie’s “Modern Love”. The scene is an homage to a scene from a Leos Carax film, but Baumbach’s re-appropriation has its own exhilaration: by incorporating the homage, it captures the sort of moment where life seems to take on the magical, beautiful properties of film.

Baumbach has long eschewed the practice of DVD commentaries; typically discs of his films come with shorter interviews. Acknowledging the collaborative nature of this project, Criterion’s Frances Ha includes two such segments: 15 minutes of Baumbach interviewed by his friend and hero Peter Bogdanovich, and another fifteen minutes of Gerwig interviewed by fellow filmmaker and actress Sarah Polley.

The filmmaker conjures the charming tentativeness of his characters when he describes Frances Ha as closer to the movie he had in his head than his past work, noting that it “feels like what I think I was probably trying to kind of dream up.” But Bogdanovich, while an intelligent enough interviewer, doesn’t get much more out of Baumbach than any number of past interviews related to this project (apart from his obligatory quoting of Orson Welles). The Polley/Gerwig chat feels a little more fresh particularly when they discuss the movie’s evocation of the “feeling of milling around” and Frances’s tendency to “fling [herself] at something” then deciding to pull back when it’s too late.

These interviews, along with “Interpreting Reality” (a segment about cinematography), essentially break down a typical commentary track into its component parts. Like the movie, they’re tight and concise. Unlike the movie, they’re not all that necessary. If Frances Ha brings to mind, as the filmmaker hopes, a short, sad-yet-happy pop song, it doesn’t really require further bonus tracks.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/177262-frances-ha/