Frances Ha. Portrait of an effervescent screw-up.

FrancesHaDanceI can’t think of the last time a movie so completely won me over that, for the first forty minutes or so, left me totally bored and aggravated.

As the movie begins, we get to see Frances, a 27-year-old ballet dancer living in New York City and played by co-writer Greta Gerwig, play fighting in the park with her BFF! And we see Frances run and pirouette down the street while David Bowie’s “Modern Love” plays on the soundtrack! And Frances bounces from apartment to apartment! (The movie’s chapters are named after Frances’ most current address.) With its French New Wave-inspired, grainy black and white and its tinny audio, Frances Ha was beginning to look like a paean to Millennial self satisfaction/self loathing.

I just slumped in my seat. I was hoping for a little more from Noah Baumbach. While I can’t say I’ve enjoyed his movies (the characters in his movies are way too grating and acidic for that), I’ve admired the intelligence in the writing and the level of performance he gets out of his actors. Baumbach is just too smart to be doing something like this! But then one of the characters describes Frances as looking “a little older, but less grown up,” and my ears perked up! A comment CRITICAL of Frances?! Maybe this movie wouldn’t be an ode of hipster malaise? Perhaps I was wrong about the movie? Boy, I was SO wrong.

Things start to fall apart for Frances. And, for the most part, they do because of the choices Frances makes. But Frances’ bad choices aren’t what got me interested. I fell in love with the way Frances, portrayed with a wonderful playfulness by Gerwig, doesn’t quite own up to her faults, but doesn’t place the blame for her predicament on “the state of the world” or something like that.

She handles her situations with the grace of the ballet dancer she happens to be. There is no self pity in her. She goes from sharing a $4000-a-month apartment with two young artists (they’re the children of rich parents, the only people who can afford to be an artist living in New York City, according to Frances’ BFF Sophie, wonderfully played by Mickey Sumner) to going back to her old college in Poughkeepsie in order to live in one of the dorms working as an RA. And she never feels sorry for herself.

This is the first time Noah Baumbach has made a movie with a character you can truly embrace. Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg, and, my favorite, The Squid and the Whale, are all about grating narcissists. And while their journeys to some sense of happiness (and, more often than not, relief) are well crafted, they aren’t a lot of fun to sit through. But once I got through the rather twee beginning of Frances Ha, I was completely swept away by it. Most of the credit goes to Gerwig. She creates in Frances a person so goofy and gentle that you feel protective of her and you want to find some of the joy she projects. And the movie’s final shot so simply and eloquently gives her and the audience a reason to be joyful.

I mentioned earlier the moment when Frances runs down the street with Bowie playing in the background? When I first saw it, I thought it was coy. The movie hadn’t earned that moment… yet. But the movie knew a whole lot more about Frances than I did. When I got back into my car after the movie was over, I played that song four times in a row, reliving the moment in my head.

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6 comments

  1. Alecco

    Great review!

    There’s more about the song, found on Wikipedia and thought you might like: “[…] and Modern Love by David Bowie.[5] This sequence is an homage to Leos Carax’ movie Mauvais Sang, where Denis Lavant runs through the streets (as Greta Gerwig does in Frances Ha with the same soundtrack).”

    On Mauvais Sang: “In Paris of the not-too-distant future, a mysterious new disease named STBO is killing young people who make love without emotional involvement”. The original clip is in YouTube, note the guy has pains when he starts (and JB is not his girlfriend).

    Both clips are amazing and very clever integrating the song.

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