By Fernando F. Croce
Dir: Noah Baumbach, U.S., IFC Films
Early on in Frances Ha, the protagonist finds herself alone with a would-be suitor in a Brooklyn flat. As they engage in awkward small talk (“This apartment is very aware of itself”), the dude tries to make the first move but is stopped cold by when the girl emits a loud, disapproving honk—a sound not unlike the you-lose buzzer signal from the children’s game Operation. Funny as it is in its abruptness, the scene is also a veritable hug or strangle moment for the viewer, an instant when the character’s eccentric blitheness can push beyond quirkiness as easily as it can slip into smugness.
For writer-director Noah Baumbach, however, there’s no question: Frances is endlessly adorable, and, as the song goes, every little thing she does is magic. Introducing his bouncy heroine, Baumbach’s infatuated camera photographs her tap-dancing to banjo music, giving change to a homeless person, peeing on the subway platform, smoking cigarettes on a fire-escape ladder, doing stretching exercises, scampering from street to street . . . All that’s missing is an outtake of the lead actress lovably blowing one of her lines à la Anna Karina in Une femme est une femme. Fortunately, that actress is Greta Gerwig, the former mumblecore starlet whose moony charm not only sustains Baumbach’s besotted scrutiny, but also encourages the auteur into new, more humane territory. Whether it’s her reportedly semi-autobiographical contributions to the screenplay or her off-screen relationship with Baumbach, Gerwig’s presence certainly figures vitally in the fact that Frances Ha is his most sprightly and least rancorous film yet.
Like several of the filmmaker’s early characters, Frances flits about the fuzzy limbo between college and the real world. At 27, she’s beginning to feel the heft of time. (As someone says in Mr. Jealousy, “You can only find incompetence endearing for so long.”) Her position at a dance company hasn’t advanced past apprentice, and her foibles have made her virtually, as people keep telling her, “undateable.” Frances’s anchor amid the post-grad fog is her friendship with Sophie (Mickey Sumner), the roommate she’s known for so long that they’ve become “like a lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex anymore.” Where Frances is content to spend her tax refunds on fancy dinners, the image-conscious Sophie—who works for Random House publishing despite having very little use for books—has her eyes on marriage to Patch (Patrick Heusinger) and an expensive new Tribeca location. Like every curveball thrown her way, Frances takes the pair’s breakup with an abstracted optimism that can’t quite conceal a strain of unmoored apprehension. Looking for a new place, she shacks up in Chinatown with Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen), amiably “artistic” blokes working on such gigs as Saturday Night Live skits and Gremlins 3 screenplays while coasting on family funds.
Frances Ha proceeds in this episodic, this-happened-and-then-this-happened manner, skittering flipbook-style from address to address. Suspended from the dancing troupe, the heroine dashes off to San Diego to spend the holidays with her folks. Saddled with a humorless new roommate, she takes a job at her old college and is assigned with following around a moneyed donor to make sure her wine glass is always full. And when, in one of the film’s funniest sequences, she impulsively hops on a plane for a weekend in Paris, she ends up spending most of the time asleep in bed, defeated by jet lag. (Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg have similar passages in which their protagonists give in to impulsive trips, in the process supposedly experiencing epiphanies. Here, the best the discombobulated Frances can hope for is a late-night screening of Puss in Boots.) Still, the bite-sized narrative seldom feels undernourished. Working with editor Jennifer Lame, Baumbach gives the film a fleet, hopscotching rhythm, at times cutting from a scene a beat or so early to keep up with the broken, spun, and mended arcs of Frances’s life. And the digital monochrome of Sam Levy’s cinematography seems to have sharpened the filmmaker’s eye: there are times, like a high-angled view of a darkened stage with black-attired ballerinas warming up, when the limpid black-and-white evokes Jean Eustache circa 1973.
The Eustache suggestion is not random. An inveterate Francophile, Baumbach put up a poster of The Mother and the Whore in a character’s bedroom in The Squid and the Whale; here, Lev and Benji keep a one-sheet of François Truffaut’s Small Change pinned to their wall while earfuls of Georges Delerue emanate from their TV set. The most explicit reference, however, turns out to be lifted from Leos Carax’s Mauvais sang, itself a homage to the Nouvelle Vague spirit. Instead of Denis Lavant’s spastic, somersaulting rush to the sounds of David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” there’s Frances pirouetting down the block with the same song trumpeting inside her head. The moment her euphoria sharply segues into melancholia as the mad dash leads only to an empty apartment is a lovely example of the uncharacteristic kindness that suffuses Baumbach’s touch throughout Frances Ha. Since his debut with Kicking and Screaming, he has cultivated a sort of Theater of Cruelty for the New Yorker set, focusing on the hostility, self-pity, impotence, and emotional violence lurking beneath the cultured veneer of his protagonists. The humility and openness of Gerwig’s character in Greenberg was particularly refreshing in the midst of Baumbach’s usual brutes with PhDs, so it’s not surprising that he would decide to build an entire movie around the actress as a follow-up.
For her part, Gerwig has over the years amassed her own gallery of Annie Halls, ranging from the thrift-store capriciousness of Hannah Takes the Stairs to the doomed-babe spikiness of The House of the Devil to the splenetic Manic Dream Pixie Girliness of The Dish and the Spoon to the elegant coed daffiness of Damsels in Distress. Collaborating with Baumbach, she has a galumphing radiance reminiscent of the young Joan Cusack, her blankness continually jolted by sudden dashes of emotion. An unabashed star showcase, Frances Ha is at times too satisfied with itself, and eventually the heroine’s trajectory succumbs to a lazy, get-your-shit-together montage (Frances makes up with Sophie! Frances choreographs her own dance routine! Frances has her own place!) that’s right out of a Judd Apatow film. A shot of Seth Rogen giving her the thumbs-up from his new desk job wouldn’t have looked out of place. But when Gerwig faces the camera, her merriness and anxiety perpetually mingling, the enchantment is sustained.