I started keeping a spreadsheet (well, a notebook originally) of films I’d been to see around the time I started going to university. My best friend of the time would take me along to interesting-sounding movies, and among the films of that first year was Noah Baumbach’s debut Kicking and Screaming (1995), about which I don’t remember much except that it dealt with aimless university graduates and had a tricksy narrative structure. I imagine if I’d been a few years older I’d have identified with the characters more, after a few years studying film and reading the classics, and certainly I had some aimless years in my 20s (I’m not convinced I’ve really progressed far from there, actually, save perhaps for a more stable living situation). It’s the same middle-class world of New York-based artists and intellectuals that Baumbach has mined in those of his films I’ve seen since then, and if it’s the kind of milieu that I chiefly associate with movies (whether his or Whit Stillman’s, Wes Anderson’s, Woody Allen’s or the recent ‘mumblecore’ movement), then it’s certainly a comfortable milieu. Yet it can sometimes feel suffocatingly airless, preying on generational narcissism; I saw characteristics in this past year’s Stuck in Love and it’s evident here too. And yet, I am sucker for this kind of thing and Frances Ha does it with exceptional charm.
Part of this charm is the way it shamelessly draws on its influences, while being sure to carefully credit them. It very clearly wants to be a Nouvelle Vague film — François Truffaut’s iconic actor Jean-Pierre Léaud is namechecked and Georges Delerue music from his films is used, while the protagonist even visits Paris at one point — and at its best it could stand alongside those early-60s films of Truffaut, Godard and Rohmer with its watchful camera and short spontaneous scenes. The black-and-white photography recalls Raoul Coutard in those years, or perhaps more apropos, the Gordon Willis who shot Woody Allen’s high period films, particularly the monochrome Manhattan (1979). It just imparts to everything a kind of timelessness: Frances Ha is set in the present, but in its music and visual cues it constantly harks to the past.
The resulting tension is reflective of the stasis in which its eponymous central character — well, almost eponymous, as her surname is longer than “Ha” — finds herself. I’ve seen it described as a ‘coming of age story’ and perhaps that’s right, or at least suggests something of the heroine’s struggle, and yet she’s 27 years old: she’s out of university, unsuccessfully pursuing a career as a dancer, unable (or unwilling) to sustain a relationship and unsure what to do. There’s a heartbreaking stretch of the film where everything just seems to go wrong for her, not in a melodramatic way, but just that way that things go sometimes (missed connections, misunderstandings, social embarrassments). But the film isn’t thankfully out to be misanthropic or to wallow in misery: Frances may have difficulty achieving her vaunted ambitions, but she is a stubborn character.
I’ve talked already about some of the ways the film is charming, but chief among them is its star (and co-writer) Greta Gerwig, an heir to Allen’s neurotic heroines of the 1970s without the WASPy excesses. She manages to pull off the kind of ‘free-spirited’ role that’s too often a lazy (male) screenwriter’s idea of femininity (Manic Pixie Dream Girls, anyone?), without sacrificing her right to be taken seriously as a character. There’s plenty of resulting comedy too, such as a wonderful scene where she is breaking up with her boyfriend but is able to animatedly take a phone call from her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Frances frequently, in fact, punctures a sombre gathering with her cheerful (and at times tactless) humour.
What it all adds up to is unclear: it’s mostly a persuasive portrait of one type of late-20s ennui, loosely organised by the different addresses in which Frances lives, thereby charting her move towards increasing security. Part of what I like about it is identifying with what I want to imagine my own 20s were like, but there’s also plenty that I think is valuable and wonderful and even heartwarming.
Director Noah Baumbach; Writers Baumbach and Greta Gerwig; Cinematographer Sam Levy; Starring Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Saturday 10 August 2013.