Frances Haliday (Greta Gerwig) is a peppy 27-year-old dancer living in New York City with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner). When her boyfriend Dan (Michael Esper) asks her to move in with him, she realizes that their relationship isn’t really working out. Later she finds out that Sophie is moving out of their apartment. With not enough money to live on her own in the City, she moves in with two male friends. Meanwhile her relationship with Sophie seems to be falling apart, one of her new roommates labels her as “undatable” and on top of that her job as a ballet teacher is on the line. Frances doesn’t really know what to do with her life. She goes back to her hometown to visit her parents. All around her people seem to be doing just fine, but even if things aren’t really working out for her at the moment, she keeps smiling and stays positive.
After not really enjoying Noah Baumbach‘s previous films The Squid and the Whale and Greenberg, I wasn’t expecting much from Frances Ha. However the film was shot in black & white and picked up by the Criterion Collection, which peaked my interest. I am also a fan of Greta Gerwig, who is a fantastic young actress with a bright career ahead of her. It’s definitely thanks to her that the film works so well and is so memorable. She even co-wrote the script with Baumbach. The film is what you would call a character piece, so it is vital that she is interesting, complex, funny, sweet, good-hearted, charming and relatable. Gerwig pulls off all of the above and manages to lure its audience in thanks to her magnetic screen presence that commands your attention and is able to keep you entertained when there isn’t much going on plot-wise.
Some people might dismiss Baumbach’s decision to shoot in black and white as pretentious and pointless, however the film’s romantic and nostalgic aesthetic helps setting the tone and in keeping with the French New Wave atmosphere permeating the film. To prove you I’m not making the French New Wave thing up: The characters are watching François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows at some point in the movie. It is strange how I prefer American homages à la Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola to this era of French cinema, than the real thing itself. Another funny thing about the film is its deliberately anachronistic use of music. Some scenes are purposely edited together almost like 20s silent era comedies with a funny music playing over the beautiful images of the girls walking around in New York City.
Of course seeing the City shot in black & white brought back memories of Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Unlike Allen, Baumbach doesn’t make fun of the bohemian youths living in studio apartments financed by their rich parents. In a climate of general hostility against wealthy people, I appreciate directors who don’t feel like they need to make some sort of obligatory social commentary. I also like that most characters love smoking. There has been such a backlash in Hollywood lately against big tobacco, to the point where cigarettes have been demonized and everyone has forgotten how great smoke looks on-screen. Again, Baumbach doesn’t feel the need to comment on the fact that his characters smoke, it’s just something they do. It’s natural.
Overall, I would recommend Frances Ha, especially if you like movies about characters trying to figure out what to do with their lives, dealing with friendships and growing up. It reminded me a little of Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco. The film doesn’t try to answer any existentialist questions or anything, but is all about showing a faithful portrayal of a young woman living in the City. She’s real, her problems are real and I think most people can identify with her. I certainly felt on more than one occasion that I was very similar to Frances: The way she thinks, treats people and even some of her mannerisms. It’s the detailed and true to life depiction of her character that make the viewing experience worthwhile. Sometimes the editing could have been a bit leaner. When you look at the picture as a whole though, the end result is more than satisfying.
Rating on First Viewing: 8 out of 10