Down and out in Paris and Brooklyn, Noah Baumbach’s playful comedy Frances Ha is a bittersweet romp through the earnest dreams of youth.
The Dreamers by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The spirit of the Nouvelle Vague looms large over Noah Baumbach. And if The Squid And The Whale or Margot At The Wedding were quirky, suburban middle-class American angsty digestions of Truffaut family dynamics, Baumbach has hit his stride with Frances Ha and its Breathless joie de vivre. It’s not only due to Greta Gerwig and her infectious charm or the self-consciously rich ‘cinema’ of Baumbach’s grainy, monochrome New York, it’s also Frances Ha‘s irrepressible self-confidence – its title unexplained until the very end providing the final punch to clinch Frances’ journey into self. For, while much of Baumbach’s film is structured around the gromance between best friends Sophie and Frances, Frances Ha is also a film of self-discovery – an awkward, painful and aptly belated coming of age.
Frances (Greta Gerwig) shares an apartment with best-friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) in Brooklyn. Expecting to extend their lease, Frances ends up breaking up with boyfriend Dan after he suggests they move in together. But seizing the opportunity of a flat in Tribeca, Sophie moves out and Frances in with Lev and Benji (Michael Zegen). A part-time apprentice in a dance troupe and other-time girls’ ballet teacher, Frances’ hopes of a dancing career are dashed when she’s let go from the Christmas show, moving back to her parents for Christmas. Desperate, Frances takes an impromptu credit-card-funded trip to Paris. Sophie moves with boyfriend Patch to Japan and the estranged friends are reunited at a charity auction at their old school where Frances is working as a wine pourer. But returning to New York, Frances starts to turn things around, accepting a secretarial job at her dance troupe, choreographing her own show and moving into her own apartment.
With its interjectory intertitles, Frances Ha can be traced through the addresses Frances lives at over the period of a year. From Vanderbilt Avenue, Brooklyn to Washington Heights via Chinatown, Sacramento, Paris and Poughkeepsie. Noah Baumbach’s film is the story of the places Frances goes and the people she meets during her year-long odyssey in her best-friendless Manhattan wilderness. At the beginning, Frances has it all – a best friend, an apartment, an understudy dancing career and a boyfriend (with two hairless cats on downpayment). But slowly, everything is stripped away, breaking up with both boyfriend and Sophie, and all that remains is Frances. She hits rock-bottom during her whistle-stop tour to Paris, the fates conspiring against her as Sophie calls to invite her to a farewell party that same night, and telephone messages from her friends Abby and Paul in Paris don’t come through until she’s back in New York. Nevertheless, in homage to Frank Sinatra, through it all Frances does it her way. And it’s to Greta Gerwig’s credit (and Noah Baumbach’s painfully funny and cleverly real script) that she makes Frances’ gauche enthusiasm so endearing.
“Have you got any tunes?” Frances asks flat mate and new besty Benj, immediately soothed after her fall-out with soul-mate Sophie for treating her like a three-hour-brunch friend. And music in Frances Ha holds a very special place – providing the emotional colour to Noah Baumbach’s black and white film. There’s pizzicato banjo for the opening sequence of the best friends play-fighting, philosophising, cooking, smoking and reading, there’s a soaring orchestra for Frances’ self-interrogating mirror moment, searching her unusually unsmiling face for an epic truth, and pop music – David Bowie’s Modern Love underscoring Frances’ dance-stepped move across Manhattan or Hot Chocolate ironically intoning Every 1’s A Winner during her darkest hour in Paris.
Despite the music though and the irrepressible humour, there’s a dark side to this bittersweet comedy and its boulevards of broken dreams. Frances finally gives up her dreams of being a dancer, exploring her much-ignored talent for choreography, and breaks out of her girly obsession with friendship and into a more womanly openness to a relationship – and there’s the faintest suggestion at the end, as they sniff round each other, that the two ‘undatables’ Benji and Frances might just get it together. But with its wry and knowing wit, pointing out the foibles in all of us, Frances Ha escapes the fate of the boys’ “very self-aware” apartment – instead, like its heroine, stripping away overzealous youthful ambitions (of learning French just to read Proust in the original), Frances Ha is a funny, beautiful and bubbly take on the sweet word of youth.
Frances Ha is released on 26th July 2013 in the UK