*** (3 stars)
d – Noah Baumbach
w – Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig
ph – Sam Levy
pd – Sam Lisenco
ed – Jennifer Lame
p – Noah Baumbach, Scott Rudin, Rodrigo Teixeira, Lila Yacoub
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Michael Esper, Adam Driver, Michael Zegen, Charlotte d'Amboise, Grace Gummer
Frances, a twenty-seven, blonde dancing apprentice living in New York is on a date. When the cheque comes she insists on paying due to acquiring a recent tax rebate. However, the waitress informs her that her card isn’t going through. Upon hearing this she turns to her date and, with all the gawky, agile, awkward integrity that the young actress Greta Gerwig possess, utters “I’m so embarrassed. I’m not a real person.”
At what age do you become a real person? This is has been the number one predicament for most American filmmakers of the last 15 years. This chapter of the story of the cinema has concerned itself with a blitzkrieg of aged immaturity, as well as the popularising of such banal terms as “The Man-Child” and “The Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl”. I would be lying if I didn’t observe that this growing permissiveness coincides with the laxity of the culture. Most of our hottest, youngest authors, directors and artists achieve this status at age forty. Forty? That is late-middle-age! In the 1960s, most of The New York Times’ best writers were in their 20s.
“Twenty-Seven is old.” Another character informs Frances. These words were ringing in my ears for hours after the film ended. Frances Ha is the new film by Noah Baumbach, a man who probably would have liked to be making films in the 1960s. His previous films include Kicking and Screaming (1995), The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Margot at the Wedding (2007). Funnily enough, this is his least overtly autobiographical work. He has co-written it with his current muse Greta Gerwig, who also stars in the film. Her performance is one of the year’s best.
Not much happens; Frances spends her time monopolizing every situation she’s in to disastrous effect. Although not everything is her fault. Things begin to unravel when her best friend and roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner) declares she’s moving in with her boyfriend. This leads to a briny drift to initiate in their friendship. We see this happen to people all the time in their twenties, but no matter how sagacious we’ve become to it, undergoing it still sucks. She manages to ignore most advice from friends, her parents (played by Gerwig’s actual parents) and Colleen, her boss at the dance studio (played by Charlotte d’Amboise, one Broadway’s greatest dancers of the last 30 years).
From that perspective, Frances Ha is an exquisite examination of that kind of person, in that kind of situation, in this current era of human history. The non-plot complications that follow have both a truthful power and comedic absurdity. But it is always cinematic. For example, when Frances moves into a new apartment she celebrates with an impromptu street ballet to David Bowie's "Modern Love". This moment is borrowed from Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang (1986), a detail that adds a cinematic phosphorescence that woos.
The film has been shot digitally on the fly. This is obvious. It, like all of Mr Baumbach’s work, is in the tradition of the French New Wave, though tradition might be a stretch here. The insinuations to Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard are so omnipresent that one can't decry them sheer aesthetic oddities. In the manner of early cinema verite, the black-and-white cinematography (by Sam Levy) induces that of Raoul Coutard’s work on Jules and Jim (1962) and The Soft Skin (1964) (Truffaut) and Vivre Sa Vie (1962) and Band of Outsiders (1964) (Godard). The agitated editing, which often omits anticipated plot turns for the sake of a vibrant cadence, also recalls those directors.
In a way, it is Masculine-Feminine (1966), but in New York. The movie also cracks Eric Rohmer in its concurrences and unsullied romantic conversations. I guess this could go on forever. Many have incited Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) as an influence. But what many are overlooking is that the film is a natural cinematic progression – rather than a gesture – from arguably the best film of the last ten years: Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel (2012).
Frances Ha doesn’t reach that’s film’s degree of cinematic magnitude, though no film does. Somehow, Mr Baumbach has managed to doctor all this into one of his best films. It is wry yet affectionate, unrestricted yet elegant, blue yet cheerful. And in Ms Gerwig, he has found a worthy cinematic mast to sail with.