Sunday, June 1, 2014

Frances Ha

I haven't been as pleasantly surprised with a film as I was with last year's FRANCES HA in some time. I was certainly anticipating writer/director Noah Baumbach's latest, and that Criterion included it so quickly in its mostly stellar library was more than encouraging. But honestly,  I was expecting a moody little bit of narcissism, albeit one with the sort of unblinkingly harsh insight seen in earlier Baumbachs like THE SQUID AND THE WHALE and MARGOT AT THE WEDDING. FRANCES HA is rather a joyful, energetic jaunt seen both through the eyes of its twenty something title character (Greta Gerwig, who had previously co-starred in Baumbach's GREENBURG and co-scripted this film) and some wily omniscient.

Frances will earn some viewers' sympathy. Some will fall in love with her. Others will dismiss her as an aimless, misguided child whose intelligence hasn't quite translated to self-sufficiency. As nurturing an environment New York City is to those who are well read and with artistic bents, it is likewise coldly unforgiving when the rent is due. And Frances spends the movie wandering from one apartment to another, beginning in Brooklyn with her best friend (and possible co-dependent) Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Frances describes their close relationship akin to "two lesbians who don't have sex." It's like they share the same brain, like soul mates. But Sophie will eventually move in with her boyfriend "Patch" (Patrick Heusinger), a guy Frances mockingly describes as the sort of shallow dude who buys a leather sofa and declares "I luuuve it."

Frances is a dancer, though she mainly oversees classes for children. Opportunities to display her own talents are often stifled. She loses out on an expected/hoped for role in a Christmas program at her studio. The rent is still due.

Gerwig creates such an endearing, yet frustrating character. You've probably met someone like her. I identified with her point of view, recognized some of her behavior as my own when I was younger. Did I make self-serving, cringe worthy comments to complete strangers around the dinner table? I loved Frances, but my paternal instincts wanted to sit her down and tell her to stop already. But someone like Frances needs to make mistakes and find her own way.

Throughout the picture, Baumbach very lovingly and effectively positions the music of Georges Delerue, Jean Constantin, and Antoine Duhamel, whose scores were used in French New Wave pics. Films which FRANCES HA clearly emulates, with its brief vignettes, quick edits, and gorgeous black and white photography (amazingly, 100% digital). Characters are highly articulate and muse philosophically nearly every minute. Like in Woody Allen and Whit Stillman movies. And oh, to be young! To have lives filled with endless get-togethers and quirky experiences. To spontaneously whip up an omelete that earns applause from your roommates.  To experience all that is beautiful and ugly in New York City. Baumbach's movie, stylized as it is, will feel very real if you've ever been young and hungry in the City. Well, not in the poverty stricken parts of it, but.....

That's an interesting point. New York City is the (ultimately) place of freedom, of growth. When Frances makes a last minute, completely ill-advised trip to Paris, she's lonely and miserable. The same streets upon which those in the New Wave films found their joy. The pop songs Baumbauch chooses also work well: While Frances runs with joy underneath David Bowie's bouncy "Modern Love" through Manhattan, she sulks around (nonetheless beautiful) Paris to Hot Chocolate's "Every 1's a Winner", with its harsh sounding guitar distortion. It works beautifully. So does the entire film.

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