Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha is one of the most appealing films of the year to date — and it may well end up being the most appealing indie release of the entire year. It is easily the most appealing Noah Baumbach film I’ve seen. Frances Ha has a lightness of tone and a generosity of spirit that’s unlike his previous movies. What is bitter and sometimes off-putting in Baumbach’s earlier films is bittersweet and inviting here. Of course, the easy answer that everyone comes up with to explain this difference is Greta Gerwig — Baumbach’s co-writer, star and girlfriend — and that may well be true. Without Gerwig — who I admit I fell for in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress last year — the film would be unthinkable. On screen, she lights up Frances Ha and makes it truly come to life, but there’s the off-screen component to consider — a much more complex proposition.
In talking about the film in an interview with me the other day, Gerwig noted, “You realize, ‘Well, I love it and if I love it maybe other people will love it.’ So we decided just to go for it.” We’d originally been talking about the film’s use of the song “Every 1’s a Winner” by Hot Chocolate, but she expanded the idea to a broader sense, saying that this was how many of the film’s decisions were made. This attitude is what I think makes the film so special, so personal, so handmade — and so pleasantly tricky to define. This is a movie that, on the one hand, is made to feel very off-the-cuff and naturalistic, but is also incredibly stylized. The off-hand quality of some scenes sits right next to the less naturalistic Paris and Sacramento scenes.
It’s been compared — mostly because of its New York-centric vibe and being shot in black-and-white — to Woody Allen’s Manhattan. That’s reasonable on a number of levels except that Frances embodies both the Diane Keaton and Mariel Hemingway characters. But there’s as much — probably more — of the French New Wave feel to Frances Ha. The presence of a great deal of music by French New Wave composer Georges Delerue underscores that feel, but doesn’t define it. There’s also at least a hint of Richard Lester to the picture. For that matter, there’s a nod to Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang (1986) in the bit with Bowie’s “Modern Love,” which is apt since Gerwig gives a performace with a physicality not unlike Denis Lavant in the Carax film. This mix of elements and the fact that Frances Ha is finally its own particular creature make for a heady and sometimes playfully giddy experience, but with a wistful undercurrent to the entire film.
The story itself is a kind of mini-epic on the life of its main character — a 27-year-old dancer who lives in a perpetual state of flux. She has no place of her own, but lives with a series of other people — all of whom she connects with more in her mind than in reality. She has a very tenuous hold on a job with a dance company — a hold that slips away as the film progresses. Frances’ biggest personal obsession is with her inseperable (she thinks) best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), who is actually determined to strike out on her own. Her relationships and her very scattered — quietly desperate — career path are much more complex than Frances tends to realize. In a sense, the movie is about her haphazard search for grounding. That could have been both whiny and irritating (it certainly has been in other movies). Magically — thanks in no small part to Gerwig’s quirky charisma — it all works here. The results are a small scale masterpiece. Rated R for sexual references and language.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas