May 16, 2013
I have never enjoyed the films of Noah Baumbach. Although they are well written and well directed, I find them mean spirited. From The Squid and The Whale's withering portrait of a couple of monstrous, self-absorbed parents, to the depressive sibling dysfunction of Margot at The Wedding and the bitter nihilism of Greenberg, their sour humor is rarely tempered by compassion. Their main characters are really hard to take, and at times it feels like Baumbach is too unforgiving with them. Not this time around.
In this luminous collaboration with actress, co-writer, and main squeeze Greta Gerwig, Baumbach has finally loosened up and delivered a truly lovely, funny, sad film that's an homage to a lot of many splendored things. It's an homage to the early films of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, with echoes of Jules Et Jim and A Band Apart, and reminiscent in spirit of Woody Allen's Manhattan; beautifully shot in black and white by Sam Levy. It uses the gorgeous music of Georges Delerue to great effect (together with an extremely well considered soundtrack). It is a tone poem to the difficulty of making it in New York if you are an artist, a bittersweet love letter to female friendship, and a very enjoyable film. Most remarkably, it is an homage to Gerwig's charm, and somehow through her, to all the female movie stars who light up the movie screen with their ineffable loveliness. There is barely a frame without Gerwig in it, and the camera basks on her beautiful, expressive face at all times.
Gerwig plays Frances, a 27 year-old eternal aspiring dancer. She lives with her best friend from college, Sophie, (Mickey Sumner, daughter of Sting, and very good) and refuses to grow up. Frances is a world class ditz, but she is sweet and loopy and fun. Life gets in the way, the way life does, particularly in New York. Better apartments are found, jobs are lost, friendships strained, and through it all Francis soldiers on, where someone with less moxie would have taken to shrinks and antidepressants. What she does instead is lie. She lies to her friends and family and to herself, trying to hold on to a way of life that is slipping away from her.
It's a strange occurrence when the middle of a movie is actually the most satisfying part of it. The second act introduces some real pain into Frances' life. Gerwig and Baumbach leave Frances' twee antics behind and delve into the painful crush of reality. Everything seems to go wrong for Frances. She can't pay the rent, her best friend is having a life without her, and Frances refuses to give up her dignity, as well as her messiness, for a shot at financial stability. The movie is arranged by chapters on her diminishing fortunes. She moves from neighborhood to neighborhood, the harsh economics of living in New York laid bare, until she's practically homeless, and a fellow dancer takes her in. Still fun, but now faced with serious problems, we really feel for Frances, even as she makes whimsical, unsound choices. She's not a violent rebel, but a sweet fuck up, and it takes rock bottom to make her come through to the other side, older and wiser. At certain points, I thought Gerwig was on the verge of falling into shtick, but she is such a charmer that she gets away with it. I just hope she doesn't play lovely, loopy women forever. She is an intelligent, vibrant actress and it would be great to see her stretch her range.
There are a couple of plot contrivances that gently strain credulity. Potential love affairs never get off the ground, because Frances is more of a sport than a seducer. She doesn't take herself seriously, so no one else does either. A refrain runs through the movie that Frances is undatable, which I found hard to believe. What man in his right mind wouldn't like to spend a couple of hours in her presence? And in the third act things come together way too neatly. The movie really makes you root for her happy ending, but I wish the ending was not so perfect. A little more of Frances' own messiness, of the bittersweet sting of successful compromise would have been nicer, but these are nitpicks. Frances Ha is Baumbach's best movie to date.