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