Contemporary cinema that is genuinely joyous and uplifting is surprisingly rare. Films that tug at the heartstrings or can be described as bitter/sweet are reasonably common, but there are not that many films that can be regarded as feel-good without the trappings of cynicism or overly manipulative schmaltz. Frances Ha is a rare example of a modern film that leaves you on a high without you feeling suspicious that you have yet again been fed a beautiful lie that you will eventually start to see through. Instead, this is a genuinely heartfelt, gorgeous and beautiful celebration of youth, friendship and grappling with all the contradictions and challenges that life throws at us.
The film is a collaboration between director Noah Baumbach, who is also one of the film’s producers, and actor Greta Gerwig who plays the lead character Frances Halladay. The pair wrote the script together and it feels like a culmination of both their careers. It is a return to the comedic and youthful focus of Baumbach’s début feature film Kicking and Screaming (1995) while containing the observational qualities that distinguish his ‘second coming’ as a filmmaker that began in 2005 with The Squid and the Whale. For Gerwig it is her most pronounced and definitive role to date, and it evokes her earlier mumblecore films rather than her recent mainstream success.
Gerwig brings to the film a slightly nervous yet constantly charming energy that is expressed through Frances’s lust for life that is only threatened by her concern that, ‘I’m not a real person yet.’ While Baumbach typically looks for the comedic potential in his scripts the subject matter often leaves his films feeling wry. However, with Frances Ha the subject matter of an enthusiastic young woman trying to find her way in the world results in a natural expression of humour and fun.
Crucial to the success of Frances Ha is that the focus is on how Frances relates to the world rather than how she relates to the world through the prism of being somebody’s romantic interest. Her love and sex life are not ignored – there is a reoccurring joke about her being ‘undateable’ – but the main relationship explored in the film is her friendship with roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Indeed, after setting up how close and similar Frances and Sophie are to each other, the main narrative drive (what little of it there is) concerns how the pair drifts apart as they start to make different life decisions.
This storyline concerning Frances and Sophie’s ‘breakup’ gives the film its emotional depth and facilitates the central theme of what it means to enter adulthood. Does growing up involve becoming realistic and practical, or is it about compromising your dreams? What is the difference between being a free spirit and being frivolous? Frances Ha does not preach one way or the other, but it presents Frances attempting to wrestle with these ideas in a way that is identifiable, endearing and ultimately uplifting.
In order to capture the barrage of life choices thrown at Frances during the film, Baumbach adopts a range of stylistic devices to highlight the importance of one of the few tangible aspects of her life: a sense of place. While her dancing career and personal life are full of unknowns, Frances at least can hold onto the physical places she occupies, so Frances Ha is segmented with title cards containing the addresses of the places she inhabits. Mostly these places are addresses in New York City and Baumbach films in black-and-white to not just evoke Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), but also the early work of pioneering American independent filmmaker John Cassavetes, especially the New York set Shadows (1959). The mythology of New York as a place of opportunities, creativity and potential is essential to who Frances is.
Also significant is how much Baumbach’s visual style evokes the youthful and rebellious energy of the French New Wave, particularly the films of François Truffaut, which Baumbach also uses music from to score parts of Frances Ha. It is appropriate that a segment of Frances Ha is set in Paris, although true to the tone and attitude of the film Frances does not have any great revelation or life changing event – she just lives (and oversleeps) in the moment.
If there is one scene to define Frances Ha then it is the obvious one of Frances running and dancing through the street of New York to David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’. It is a homage to a similar moment in Mauvais Sang (1986), fittingly by French New Wave inspired director Leos Carax, as well as being the type of non-narrative moment that characterised loose narrative films by Cassavetes and Truffaut. More importantly it expresses Frances’s endless enthusiasm and love of life in a film not defined by a romantic interest or an obvious goal. Her euphoric dance through the streets is an act of gleeful defiance against convention, just as the film is itself. There are no simple life lessons or morals here. Frances’s dance is saying that modern life, like modern love, ‘terrifies me’ but it also ‘makes me party’ and that is what Frances, the film and the audience embrace.