Dour, hyper-self-aware, tense to the point of occasional suffocation: how I’d describe most Noah Baumbach movies, like The Squid and the Whale (until now, his best, about a teenager’s perspective on his parents’ divorce) and Greenberg. This doesn’t make his earlier efforts “bad,” per se, though likability often comes in precious little supply. Cheery, self-aware but not pretentious, driving at a point but without sacrificing spontaneity: how I’d describe Frances Ha, Baumbach’s latest and probably one of the two best movies I’ve seen so far this year (Before Midnight the other). I saw it over a week ago, but the movie has stayed fresh in my head, probably because it’s just a sweet, joyous movie (and also probably because it’s short, rather than ponderous, at 86 minutes); the sweetness and joy present here coexist alongside the psychological warfare Baumbach’s characters usually wage in a way that lifts and enlivens his usual material. It’s as if Baumbach has recognized that analyzing the human condition requires paying attention to the klutz inside all of us, and not just the contemplative but entitled douchiness inside all of us. The result is a comedy that’s actually pretty fucking funny, which isn’t always the adjective you’d ascribe to his past efforts. I joked both before and after I saw Frances Ha that the film was elitist, and it is, but only to the extent the film is elitist, as in knowing what The 400 Blows‘ score sounds like might raise your appreciation for the movie. But the laughs and (most) of the characters? These don’t come from any elitist source; you could find them anywhere between New York and California.
In my view the reason for the movie’s success, and why it’s so darn likable compared to Baumbach’s more introspective filmography, has to do with Greta Gerwig, its lead. She’s an up-and-comer you might recognize from Damsels in Distress (you might recognize her from this, I haven’t seen it, nor had I heard of it) or a small part in Woody Allen’s most recent (but disappointing and scatterbrained) To Rome with Love. Gerwig met Baumbach on the set of Greenberg, and they’re dating now; at some point before and lasting into their courtship’s infancy they traded emails with ideas that ultimately blossomed into the script for Frances Ha (Gerwig receives co-writing credit with Baumbach). In this New Yorker article that coincided with the movie’s release in the spring (currently only one theater in New York, the IFC Center, is playing it, and I don’t know whether there are plans for a wider release or whether you’ll have to wait for the Bluray), Gerwig comes across as an intellectual not unlike Baumbach himself, so it’s easy to imagine why and how they get along.
The magic of Frances Ha is that Frances (Gerwig) does not come across this way, even if Gerwig’s real-life parents play Frances’. Instead, Frances is clumsy, lazy, and indecisive—intellectuals can have these traits, too, but Frances is pure instinct and reaction, not some Hamlet who overthinks every situation. Interacting with others, Frances garbles her words and lets her voice trail off while cluing her audience in on a little TMI (usually about her sadsack dating history, a running joke she shares with another dude is that they’re both “undatable,” and it’s cute in context). The movie’s coup de grace though is that despite her bad luck, Frances is almost always upbeat, save for one scene where she drunkenly curses out her best friend and roommate Sophie for breaking their lease and moving in with her boyfriend, whom Frances considers a boring, dickbag Wall Street type (apologies, everybody I know).
Most of the time, however, we get images of Frances pirouetting down the street (she’s a struggling ballet dancer) to Bowie’s “Modern Love,” or sheepishly stumbling on the sidewalk when she realizes she doesn’t have enough cash to pay for her share of the meal on a date with Lev (Adam Driver from Girls). Frances shrugs off her scrapes when she makes it back to the restaurant, as well as an impromptu two-night trip to Paris where she sleeps through one whole afternoon due to jetlag. Her motto, incredibly, is something like “NO POUTING ALLOWED.” And yes, the movie explains the title, and it’s pitch-perfect for the movie and its central character when it finally does.
Pretty much everybody is going to compare Frances Ha to Woody Allen’s Manhattan because it’s in black-and-white, a smart comedy, and set in New York. There are reasons to compare it to Manhattan, in that the characters are after romance and relationships and stability, and they’re both in the city and the cinematography is gorgeous. All true. And like Woody Allen, Baumbach is working with an extensive film dictionary by his director’s chair. If you see Bergman and Fellini trotted out in Allen’s films, you’ll notice Baumbach pay homage Truffaut and the other French New Wave masters here. (The French New Wave has influenced Allen, of course, but with him the influence is strongest in Husbands and Wives, not Manhattan.)
I say “homage” rather than “ripped off” because I think Baumbach has applied the French New Wave milieu (if classic rock isn’t heard, it’s often the delicate keys of music that you’d find in films from that other era, mostly those with scores composed by Georges Delerue) to suit his modern story, not to retell the story of some French (male) adolescents from the ’60s, even if Baumbach can shoot on a low enough budget to film a couple scenes on location in Paris (read the New Yorker article for why he could if you have a few minutes). Frances Ha and Frances herself have much more warmth than the ambiguity of films like The 400 Blows, Breathless, and Jules and Jim and their protagonists. Baumbach has layered his story with a tale familiar to many of Frances’ generation (she’s supposed to be Gerwig’s age)—finding a job.* Baumbach has a new take on the French New Wave’s famous jump cuts, with Frances Ha replacing camera swipes with title cards that mark every occasion on which Frances changes her home address. It’s no problem—in fact, it’s pretty cool—that he’s infused his very cosmopolitan tale with winks to old movies he loves, and that kids today might love (like I do). Even the Bowie song is homage, lovingly borrowed from (I believe) a Leos Carax movie, but it’s still exultant and delightful here.
*And don’t worry, old people, Baumbach agrees with you that kids should get a job. Just remember this is a sentiment that kids agree with, too.
In the introduction I purposefully let slip (so that you might give Frances Ha added consideration) that the film clocks-in under an hour and a half. It’s short, but it tells a complete story, with credit to Baumbach’s savvy use of ellipsis, or the omitting of part of the story that would connect the two scenes on either side of the missing info. Early on, Frances fights with her current boyfriend. One wants a pair of cats, which leads to a discussion of them moving in together, and as they talk it out they realize that their relationship might have buckled on its last legs. Only they start to calm down and the last line of the scene is “Will you move in with me?” Soon after, we see Frances in an apartment, but with Sophie, the one she’d debated leaving: Through ellipsis, we can intuit that Frances never moved out without seeing her reply to her boyfriend’s question above. More audacious is Baumbach’s use of ellipsis at the end, when Frances has reached her lowest point, working at a dance camp where she went to college years before, only all of the other RA-slash-instructors are college-age girls. Baumbach cuts from a shot, from Frances’ point-of-view, that stares at her feet, to a more hopeful epigraph (and a new address) that takes place much later. The transition makes sense, as if Frances realizes these are the tools that will put her, and forgive me here, back on her feet. The device helps create a concise movie that includes no more scenes than we need. If a director’s goal is to heed Howard Hawks and fashion “three great scenes, no bad ones,” then Frances Ha comes very close.
It’s still something of a miracle that Frances Ha is as charming as it is. I’ve discussed Baumbach’s recycling of hard-luck or loser characters, and have tried to explain how, through Gerwig, Baumbach’s retained both the hard-luck and loser qualities but has added a new, more vivacious ingredient to the elixir. But while Gerwig adds sweetness, her cheerfulness doesn’t remove any bite from Frances Ha. I so appreciated its use of profanity—there are multiple, hilarious uses of the word “cunt,” the only swear word with any force, really, though there are no shortage of funny ones—and after listening to Armando Iannucci (the Bard of Profanity) on Andy Greenwald’s podcast this morning (watch In the Loop or The Thick of It, his Veep is G-rated by comparison), I think I know why. Iannucci, who shockingly DOESN’T curse in real life, maintained that creativity with curse words is essential for good comedy. You can’t just say “shit” and “fuck” all the time, because people like me use those two more than “uhhh” or any given permutation of the verb “to be.” What’s funnier is to throw in a “cunt” or two (but not too many) and have a girl say the word. When a guy comes onto a girl via text with the ridiculous greeting “Ahoy, sexy,” as Lev does, it’s dick-teasingly funny to have two girls joke about “starboard anal.” All told you have a tender comedy that manages to be edgy when a lot of films strain to be either of the two, and when it’s this perfectly concise, without giving much away, you’ll understand why the title is so apt. Hopefully you’ll love it as much as I did, too.