Review: Frances Ha


I doubt I will enjoy any performance more this summer than Greta Gerwig’s luminous portrayal of the title character in Francis Ha, directed by Noah Baumbach and co-written by Baumbach and Gerwig. Even now I can picture her face, round and lit like a full moon, smiling even while she attempts to bridge the gap to adulthood, coming a little late at 27 years old.

Frances is a dancer, an apprentice with a modern dance company. She lives in Brooklyn with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) who has a job with Random House. They are both straight, but don’t hesitate to sleep in the same bed. They are, Frances explains, “The same person, with different hair.” Frances passes on moving in with her boyfriend because Sophie might want to renew the lease, which makes the boyfriend break up with her. Frances is nonplussed.

But Sophie has a boyfriend, and Frances is jealous, which makes Sophie move out and leaves Frances adrift, even more so when the dance company temporary lays her off. Unmoored, she moves in with a couple of guys, visits the family in California for Christmas, takes possibly the dullest trip ever to Paris, and gets a summer job at Vassar, her alma mater. But throughout all this, she remains perpetually cheerful with an infectious sense of optimism.

This reminded me of other films about girl/women who remain sunny in all weather, such as Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria and Godard’s A Woman is a Woman. While Gerwig is not a gamin like Julietta Massina or Anna Karina–she is more like a large, terrestrial bird, taking pratfalls–she has their zest for life.

In many ways this is like a European film, shot in black and white and seemingly on the fly in authentic locations. It is certainly not mumblecore, though Gerwig is the queen of that genre. It has elements of the naturalism that is the cornerstone of mumblecore, it is also full of cinematic flourishes, such as the simply adorable scene of Frances running down the street, brimming with glee, as David Bowie’s “Modern Love” plays on the soundtrack.

This is a love story, a romantic comedy about the friendship of two women. If you close your eyes and imagine Sophie as a man, this would be a fairly straightforward example of the genre, as the two start together, come apart, and find there way towards each other again. Men are largely irrelevant in the final analysis. Frances has mostly platonic relationships with the opposite sex, such as the two roommates she shares for a while. One of them jokingly refers to her as undateable, and in a more conventional film these two would end up together (and maybe they do, after the credits are over).

Baumbach’s direction is laid back, yet not sloppy. There are some affectations: everytime Frances moves, we get a title card of her new address, including the zip code, a kind of Wes Anderson-like bit of preciousness. But he knows to keep the camera trained on Gerwig, who is in every scene. Her dialogue, at times a stream-of-consciousness spiel (I’m thinking in particular of her answer to a fellow diner about whether she’s ever been to Paris) may remind some of Annie Hall, but it’s a creation wholly unto itself. I’m going to spend the rest of the year hoping that Gerwig gets nominated for an Oscar.

My grade for Frances Ha: A


About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

19 responses »

  1. Saw this yesterday, and thought that Frances was one of the most unlikeable movie characters I’ve ever encountered. Everything about her screamed “get away from her” to me. People like this in real life are to be avoided at all costs – they seem perpetually cheerful and optimistic, but it’s just a front for the misery and despair that they carry everywhere with them and suck everyone they know into.

    I also thought the movie was just one big pointless New Wave affectation. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie make New York seem like such a cheerless and unappealing place. Even Taxi Driver.

  2. To keep the discussion about Baumbach films, I felt the same way about the title character in Greenberg, who in my opinion was far more unlikeable than Frances. It brings up the question, does an unlikeable character automatically make for a bad movie?

    Anyway, I thought Frances was adorable, which I think says more about me than the film.

  3. No, I don’t think an unlikable character automatically makes for a bad movie. But in this case, I think the conflict between Frances’s unlikability and the film’s clear reverence of her is hard to get around. At least Greenberg had a clear view of how unpleasantly neurotic its main character was. I felt like the filmmakers were too blinded by her superficial charm to notice in Frances’s case.

    And I Am Legendhad wild lions roaming the streets of NYC, right? Some lions would have made a world of difference in this movie.

  4. I think we all had this discussion over Greenberg. I really liked that movie and his unlikeableness (word?) and I like unlikable characters in general.
    And Baumbach is far from mumblecore. His movies are well-written, well-directed, and have something to say about the ‘bigger picture’.

  5. I loved this. She’s emotionally stunted and aimless, sure – but “one of the most unlikeable movie characters”? That’s a bit of a exaggeration. I wouldn’t say she was perpetually chipper, either.

  6. I am firmly on Brian’s side with this one. I can’t understand anyone who isn’t a woman and who isn’t under 25 liking this movie. This character was remarkably unlikable, and by the time she’s leaning back without falling at the fountain, back and forth, back and forth, and her borderline aspergerish idea that someone else would want to ‘play fight’ and she wasn’t getting it, and she kept pushing her like she was autistic…this was easily one of the most unlikable characters ever put to film.

  7. I can’t understand anyone who isn’t a woman and who isn’t under 25 liking this movie.

    Well, I loved it and I’m not in either category. And it did find its way into Film Comment’s poll of the top films of the year. So you and Brian are firmly in the minority.

  8. I couldn’t stop thinking the same thing I thought during any Jackass movie or Attack the Block: “Man, this is great if you’re 20 and even better if you’re 15. But other than that-”
    This is like the mumblecore version of that.

  9. If every member of Tumblr except the 15 percent who are over 25 got together to make a movie, this would be it. This is Tumblr running at 24 frames per second.

  10. “Man, this is great if you’re 20 and even better if you’re 15. But other than that-”

    Substitute 22 and 18 above and that’s how I feel about Tarantino these days.

  11. While this wasn’t as pointed as previous Baumbach works I’ve seen, I had a pretty good time with it. Very well directed (and edited) and agreeable enough and short enough to get away with the fact that it basically has no story. The glorious B&W photography helped as well.

    Re: the debate about Frances as a character, I saw it as the film seeing somebody who is a mixture of genuine warmth and selfishness whose probably taken too long to grow up but by the end you can see her taking some notable steps in her maturity without losing her individual appeal.

    One issue I had with the film was how it had a ‘timeless’ quality which was a mixed blessing at best. Outside of the occasional viewing of a laptop (even the smartphone seem to be just used as phones iirc) this felt like a film that could’ve been set in 1998 or 1987 New York, which I presume is intentional. But in a town and society increasingly hobbled by the gap between rich and poor and stories about how hard it is to find affordable accomodation in the town, it just made Frances’ living arrangement seem far less consequential and urgent than it should’ve been.

    Still, a pretty good film.

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