If one could distill films into particular formulas, the equation in this case might read: (Woody Allen x Jean-Luc Godard) – existentialism = the contemporary New York bourgeois comedy, Frances Ha. Noah Baumbach’saesthetically appealing film is at once a homage to, and a film inspired by,the style of French independent filmmakers and, by allowing audiences to engage with the world through the eyes of an auteur, the film imparts its own philosophy and charm.
Having been a co-writer on Wes Anderson’s films The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr Fox, the film’swriter/director Baumbach has had experience creating characters filled with enthusiasm for the magical. However, it was his directorial debut with the semi-autobiographical comedy, The Squid and the Whale,that showcased his ability to capture people and their relationships. In Frances Ha, Baumbach shares his writing credits with the film’s leading lady, Greta Gerwig. This partnership is perhaps one of the film’s greatest strengths as Gerwig is portraying a character that she clearly understands intimately. The role, and Gerwig’s performance in it, lifts the film.
Frances (a name that is no doubt a nod to the French New Wave) is a 27-year-old dancer who is addicted to the past while everyone around her is landing a career, moving away or getting married. Filming in black and white and including intertitles, provides nice analogies for an artist who feels like they’re going nowhere and so seem to be stuck in the past, or a film from the 1960s.
If in Les Misérables, the act of stealing a loaf of bread leads to a startling sequence of consequences, Frances’ attempts to stall changes in her life also similarly snowballs and results in her artistic and personal dreams being thwarted at every turn. She assumes that she and her best friend Sophie will be living together indefinitely as the “lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex anymore”, only to find herself helping Sophie move out two months later. Thus while her income shrinks, an impulsive trip to Paris only leaves bitter regrets as Frances fails to advance in a dancing career that has never really taken off. By the halfway mark in the film, she is broke, alone and at an involuntary stalemate in her life/career. However, softened by Frances’ infectious optimism, the film intimates that life cannot break her, and Frances rides out her misfortunes.
As in the lyric from Bon Iver’s “Holocene” (a song Frances might well have listened to on vinyl), “and at once I knew I was not magnificent”, there is a point in life when you discover that you are so small that you might not make even a mark on the world. Frances realises she’s special and not special at the same time. Like a film, like running down the street to David Bowie, like a word that is too small for hope or expectation, such thoughts are soothing nonetheless. Frances Ha cannot be reduced to a single message but its protagonist does evoke a singular philosophy; as another artist said before her, “existing’s tricky: but to live’s a gift”.