Saturday, June 22, 2013

Frolicking: Frances Ha

Mickey Sumner and Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha

Frances Ha, which opened yesterday in Toronto, is Noah Baumbach’s homage to the ebullient spirit of Truffaut, set among a circle of young, aspirational twenty-something artists in New York City. Frances (Greta Gerwig) is an apprentice with a dance company whose dream of a position as a full-time dancer thrives as her ambition flounders. Her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) works in publishing at Random House; they met at Vassar, but five years after graduation they are still as inseparable as college roommates. (“We’re the same person,” Frances explains.) When they fall out with each other, Frances spins her wheels to more and more self-destructive effect – she gets fired from the dance company’s Christmas show, her only source of income, and winds up back in Poughkeepsie working part-time student jobs at Vassar for minimum wage – as Sophie moves to Tokyo part-time with her boyfriend and gets engaged.

Baumbach co-wrote the screenplay with Greta Gerwig, and its smart, contemporary dialogue is offset by its black and white cinematography and music from Georges Delerue’s scores for Truffaut’s films. By way of Truffaut, Baumbach also inevitably references Woody Allen’s Manhattan, which was also shot in black and white but in homage to the formalist tableaux of Ingmar Bergman. But although Manhattan was intended as a paean to the city and to the sensitive romantic ideals of its director and star, it was as though Allen was constantly genuflecting to Bergman, the great master; embittered by his own inferiority, his comedy of neurotic self-deprecation turned in on itself and soured. Baumbach made a similar mistake more recently in Greenberg (2010), which enshrined the miserable paralysis of its slacker protagonist (Ben Stiller) and at the same time punished him for it. That may be because, like Allen, Baumbach is a romantic idealist in conflict with his own idealism. It’s when he embraces those ideals and the comic playfulness that comes with them instead of reacting in resentment against them that he’s at his best. That’s what he does in Frances Ha, and he gets at a candid, emotionally honest and wholly appealing examination of female friendship and coming-of-age.

Frances Ha is about what happens to the friendship formed in the coltish uncertainty of youth when people mature at different paces, one lunging for adulthood and the other clinging to childhood. In this, it’s a little like Terry Zwigoff’s cult classic Ghost World (2001), based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, which was about best friends, Enid (Thora Birch) and Rachel (Scarlett Johansson), whose teenage bond as counter-culture idealists frays and even drives them apart the summer after they graduate from high school. But Frances Ha doesn’t have Ghost World’s problems. Zwigoff resorted to pitting the friends against each other to resolve his story, and he identified so much with Enid and her ambivalence about growing up it was almost as though to sustain a conflict between them, Rachel had to become the movie’s adversary. The dissolution of the friendship was refreshingly lucid in Clowes’ comic book because he showed the erotic underpinning of the love (and hate) teenage girls feel for each other, a theme that doesn’t make it into the movie. Baumbach and Gerwig don’t eroticize the relationship between Frances and Sophie, but it’s a love story nonetheless, a romantic comedy where adult friendship, not sex, is the ultimate prize. And although Sophie, like Rachel, is the more pragmatic friend, the one who has a career and a serious boyfriend, and who folds Frances’ clothes, always strewn over the bed, when she’s not looking, she’s just as ambivalent and unsure of herself in her committed pursuit of an adult life as Frances is in her refusal to commit. (A very funny sequence in which Frances and Sophie run into each other at their alma mater where Frances is secretly living in the dorms to save money and Sophie has returned for an elite function for alumni donors, drunk and on her worst behavior with her mortified fiancĂ© in tow, makes this point.) Even when they’re out of pace with each other, they somehow remain in sync. 

Greta Gerwig with Michael Zegen and Adam Driver
As the friends in question, Gerwig and Sumner give charmingly understated performances. They’re completely convincing in the physical inventiveness and verbal shorthand of the characters’ friendship. They don’t play to the camera because they’re always playing to each other; they get at the way the perfect intimacy women have with each other can also be a performance, a mixture of competitiveness and need. (Baumbach films it almost as a pas de deux.) Sumner especially gives so skillful a naturalistic performance it threatens to be underrated; you almost don’t notice it’s happening. But then the whole cast in strong. As Frances’ bohemian roommates Lev and Benji who live off their parents’ dime, Adam Driver and Michael Zegen get at that tousled laissez-faire charm that only comes from never having to worry about making the rent. As aspirational as they are unsure of themselves in their sometimes cocky, sometimes self-deprecating romantic ideals, these characters might have walked out of Dustin Hoffman’s young company in Tootsie, and like the actors in that earlier film, their performances feel infected by the giddy fun of really being young artists in the city.  

Or maybe it’s just Gerwig’s giddiness that is so contagious. She lights up the screen, though she couldn’t be a more unlikely dancer: she has the kind of angular, oversize frame that looks best in clothes that accentuate it – as Frances she’s dressed in men’s collared shirts that hang square and button-down thrift store dresses, like a rumpled, low-rent Annie Hall. (Although the Woody Allen actress she better resembles in this performance is Mia Farrow.) But, then, Frances Ha is an unconventional dance movie. It’s actually about the nervous, improvisatory movement of coming into adulthood, ungainly, unbalanced, and paradoxically graceful. As an actress, Gerwig is the embodiment of that kind of movement, and it’s the quality Baumbach seeks to capture as a director; together, they have managed to create a character who finds serenity in the neurotic, unfinished quality of life. Frances looks less at home in her body when she’s in the studio than when she twirls and frolics down a crosswalk as unself-conscious as a child. (In those moments she’s a cross between Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows and Jeanne Moreau’s Catherine in Jules and Jim.) She’s physically imaginative but completely unchoreographed; she can perceive patterns around her in how people behave but she can’t follow any of them. When, at the end of the film, she creates a dance piece expressive of her own, and her friends’, partner-swapping, self-searching coming-of-age, it’s surprisingly moving. Frances is Noah Baumbach’s better angel: she has the exuberance and sweetness that in his best movies he knowingly embraces in himself.

Greta Gerwig as Frances
The movie wobbles in places, especially in the middle when Frances hits rock bottom. (She pays for a two-day trip to Paris on credit and returns to New York only to turn down the job as an administrator for the dance company that would actually get her out of debt.) When her fumbling, uncensored social skills make her the outcast at a dinner party where the men are lawyers and bankers, and the women principal dancers and young mothers (with perfect hair), the script isn’t just making a point – it’s underlining it. In the wincing awkwardness of that sequence, it starts to feel like Baumbach is retreating into the device he uses all the way through Greenberg: setting his character up for humiliation only to valorize her for how uncomfortable she makes everyone, including the audience, feel. But even then Frances Ha doesn’t completely lose its footing, largely because Gerwig, as Frances, is so likeable. Her tenderness for the character, both as an actress and a screenwriter, is infectious – you really care about this woman, and you find yourself worrying for her, not only that she’ll find her way but that the movie won’t fall apart on her halfway through.

The editing and pacing of the movie mimics the nervous energy of its characters with montages of micro-scenes that capture fragments of dialogue and action. A sequence in which Frances goes home to Sacramento to visit her folks is particularly well directed – there’s a Christmas party, a trip to the dentist, a coffee date with high school friends, a folksy Unitarian church service, and maybe eight or ten other scenes, each with a distinct mood, but the entire segment takes maybe two minutes. (Gerwig’s real life parents give touching performances here as Frances’ folks.) I can see why Baumbach wanted to shoot in black and white, given his material, but it just doesn’t work with the digital cinematography, which tends to make everything textureless and flat – the contrasts are so bad that the darker scenes look murky, as though they’ve been underlit. (There’s no stipple or grain to the image, as there was in Gordon Willis’ gorgeous cinematography for Manhattan, because there’s no real film; it’s really a faint echo of the black and white aesthetic.) It becomes a distraction. You want the images to sparkle, to match the spirit of this comedy that, in an age of cynical comedies, truly takes lightheartedness seriously.

– Amanda Shubert is a graduate student in English at the University of Chicago. Previously, she held a curatorial fellowship at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts, working with their collection of prints, drawings and photographs. She is a founding editor of the literary journal Full Stop.

No comments:

Post a Comment