A young woman in her late twenties pirouettes, jumps, and spins through the streets of New York City as David Bowie’s “Modern Love” pounds in her head, on the screen, and in our hearts. It is not only the city that sparkles in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, but Frances herself. Energetic, prone to folly, and warmly sincere, Frances is perhaps the best illustrated character to come out of film in ages, both a perfect fit for the contemporary environment she inhabits and yet timeless in how human she is.
The Energy and the Subtlety
Baumbach’s film is filled with a unique sense of energy that, perhaps contrary to one’s notions of “energy” in film, is incredibly subtle. The first frames on screen have Frances Halladay (Greta Gerwig) and her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) on guard and in stances ready for a fight. Their play fighting begins and the sounds of “Camille” by Georges Delerue (taken from the name of Brigitte Bardot’s character in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt) bust with as much vigor as Frances and Sophie do on screen. Their relationship dynamic is electric, a friendship that sparkles regardless if they’re tap dancing in the park or making dinner or doing laundry. It has the beats and power of friendships that only exist with people that truly love each other.
Delerue’s strumming guitar bounces in the same way that Frances and Sophie do, not only physically, but emotionally. It’s a fitting prelude to what amounts to an emotional rollercoaster and evolution for their dynamic.
Frances is a special kind of person, a character whom, were she improperly illustrated or poorly portrayed, would fit into the school of Zooey Deschanel Twee. Frances, in and of herself, is not a subtle person and does not know how to do “subtle” in the same way other people can. The interaction she has with her soon-to-be- ex-boyfriend illustrates that it isn’t necessarily that she lacks tact, just that she doesn’t quite know how to perform tact. But even her anxiousness in that scene, manifested through her sheepishness, awkward looks, and desire but inability to control her voice, has a unique kind of indescribable glow. Frances isn’t quite an airhead or a doofus, but she still retains a similar puppy dog quality.
An interesting relationship between the very words of this section of the essay is that, for Frances and Sophie’s relationship, the two are intertwined. Every emotional outburst is perhaps overly and outwardly energetic, but it represents a subtle shift in the dynamic itself. For instance, in the scene where Frances tells Sophie on the phone “I love you” while in Paris, though the move itself seems tremendous (it is), it is presented and spoken with a crucially quiet tone, both vocally and in terms of the palette of the scene. The phone conversation they have is kind of awkward, which is pointedly unusual for them given that they haven’t spoken in a while, so the words “I love you” indicate a careful shift of understanding on both of their parts, primarily for Frances. She inches towards understanding the fluidity of their friendship.
She runs with frenetic vitality to the ATM to Jean Constantin’s “L’école buissonnière” (from François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows), and the use of such fun music amplifies how light hearted the film can be. Gerwig has incredible comic timing both linguistically and physically, falling on her way back and getting right back up.
The most memorable scene of the film is, of course, Frances running down the street to Bowie’s “Modern Love” a sly and lovely homage to a scene in Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang, where Denis Lavant fights against himself to dance to the music. Though the scene is most emblematic of the film’s delightful ardor, it’s also significant for its abrupt ending, wherein Frances returns to her apartment (at 1am, it is later revealed) to find no one up. She closes the door, looks around, and sighs. It’s almost indicative of the vigor Frances has inside of her and the lack thereof in the rest of the world.
For as much zeal as there is in Frances’s movements, Gerwig is able to imbue the character with subtle expressions and gestures that reveal more than words could. While in Lev’s apartment, he shows her a vintage camera. He reaches for her shoulder in a flirtatious manner, and she makes an alarm sound and moves her body in a jauntily “back off” manner. While this alone indicates her unwillingness to have a brief encounter with someone, Gerwig makes a few other subtle movements. She makes a sigh and her shoulders slump, rubbing her eyes almost in a melancholy way. It’s hard to read exactly what this means, but it’s almost representative of the swarm of emotions that are in her head.
Frances is a dancer and, strictly speaking, not a very good one. The film never faults her for this, nor mocks her, but in a way, the film admires for how much heart she puts into her dance. Frances leads a life that’s not unlike Bausch’s declaration of, “Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost”. Regardless of her balletic shortcomings, she breathes life into slumping around, walking in the street, and dancing.
Frances and Sophie Forever
Described by their friends as a “lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex anymore”, the relationship between Frances and Sophie isn’t inherently unique, to film or otherwise, but the breathless tastefulness and delicate handling of it is. There’s also an air of honesty that seems to be oddly unique, missing from other films that may broach the same topic. It is seemingly easy to encounter male friends (while coasting past a line of gay panic) that are archetypal, and for on screen female friends, it seems to be very similar. Female friendship in film, with few exceptions, falls into convention and remains insignificant and fairly uninteresting.
That Frances and Sophie seemed to be fully fledged human beings (though that label might be perhaps questionable for Frances, who apologizes to Lev for being unable to use her debit card at dinner by saying, “I’m not a real person yet”) significantly improves how realistic the friendship is and very much explains the diverging paths that act as an impetus for most of the narrative “drama” in the film. They are closer than most friends, intimate emotionally with one another more than most people on screen are (unless someone is dying). But the fact that they exist as two separate people whose interests evolve is critical to understanding why Frances and Sophie work as a couple and why Frances Ha works as a film.
Though one of the strengths of the film is that the power dynamics between the two shifted and seemed balanced at times, Frances is probably more overtly needy. She is not cripplingly dependent on Sophie, but Sophie’s presence in her life is incredibly important to how she has, up to the beginning of the film, grown as a person. Thus, part of the dramatic narrative weighs on Frances’s ability to function without her best friend. While Sophie exists as a singular human being, more independent and aware of how to function in “real life” than Frances, Frances’s narrative serves to allow her to grow. This, though, is not done in such an overwhelmingly “coming of age” style: it feels natural and real.
Though Frances does enjoy being very close in proximity to people, which is a part of her endearing flaw in personality, she, and director/co-writer Baumbach, is placed at a distance from most people except for Sophie. In the beginning scene with her ex, she is only shown in a two shot once, with the rest of the scene presented in typical shot/reverse shot fashion. But when Baumbach frames her specifically “at a distance” in the corner of her ex’s apartment on the couch, one realizes how close and reliant she is on Sophie.
While Sophie exists fully formed and, for all intents and purposes, as mature as she needs to be for the film, the best part of the character is that she does need Frances as much as Frances needs her. The difference between them is not necessarily which of them has their life most together (that would go to Sophie), but how their need for one another manifests. Sophie’s independence and confidence, the thing that inadvertently sends the two adrift, complements Frances’s manic desire for what Sophie has. It results in both of them being slightly less inclined to the other how much they need them, an irony for their dynamic. Usually perfectly frank with one another, the very change that appeared in their dynamic also changed gave the impression that they had to change the kind of language that could speak to one another, even though, by the end of the film, one realizes that that is not true.
When Sophie leaves Frances’s life, her life changes drastically. If one calls Frances dependent on Sophie, it feels mean and reductive, but Sophie nonetheless was a placeholder and arguably the most important person in her life. Thus, having trouble adjusting to life without her, pots and pans included, is not only reasonable, but realistic.
When Frances sees Sophie while she’s working at Vassar as an RA and “drink pourer”, it overwhelms her. But that Sophie is having a fight with her fiancée Patch (Patrick Heusinger), whom Frances used to hate, it gives the two the perfect opportunity to silently acknowledge how much they need one another in their respective lives, and how much Frances has had to grow.
The emotional connection between them is wholly unique to the best friendship dynamic that exists for them: their intimacy with each other is hard to describe. The two sleep in the same bed together, with Frances’s laptop illuminating their faces. Sophie requests Frances sleep in the same bed. Frances knows where Sophie’s pills are and knows what special milk she needs. They plan a future together. The warmth between them is far them: comforting, real, and special.
Frances Halladay is sort of childlike. Strongest in Baumbach and Gerwig’s screenplay is that it acknowledges just how flawed Frances is without condescending to her or demeaning her. The messy qualities of Frances’s life are kind of endearing. Her obliviousness to situations, lack of tact, sheer enthusiasm. As aforementioned, she’s not unlike a puppy dog.
She flighty, certainly, and even quirky, but she doesn’t fall into the realm of “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”. The archetype is used to describe a character who is quirky and fun, but who serves ultimately no other purpose than to catalyze the male character’s evolution and transformation. The MPDG never really has motivations of their own. It’s precisely this last reason why Frances never falls into that category: the story centers on her, her wishes, trials and tribulations, and never does she get romantically involved with someone (“Undateable!”). Frances, throughout the entire film, exists on her own terms.
Her drunken speech at the party Rachel (Grace Gummer) brings her to is moving and maybe when she reveals herself as the most vulnerable person in the room without her friend:
“It’s that thing when you’re with someone and you love them and they know it, and they love you and you know it, but it’s a party! And you’re both talking to other people and you’re laughing and shining and you look across the room and catch each other’s eyes. But…but not because you’re possessive or it’s precisely sexual but because that is your person in this life. And it’s funny and sad but only because this life will end. And it’s this secret world that exists right there in public unnoticed that no one knows about. It’s sort of like how they say that other dimensions exist all around us, but we don’t have the ability to perceive them. That’s…that’s what I want out of a relationship or just life, I guess.”
Frances’s search for meaning in her world, from that of a dancer to the relationship with her best friend, is both keyed into a certain kind of person that is a direct product of her generation, but also completely transcendent of being pigeonholed as merely a “Generation Y character”. While the specificity of her situation is undoubtedly pinned to 2013, the honest follies she makes and the yearning for finding someone to eye across the room is pleasantly timeless.
The film is told episodically through title cards that indicate where Frances is living at a given time. Stylistically, there’s almost a slice of life quality to the film because of its structure, with each place having a tone that may be inseparable from the whole, but singular in its own way. Frances bounces from Brooklyn to Chinatown, to Paris, to Poughkeepsie, to Washington Heights, and fall into play in how Frances matures. Each locale seems familiar and warm. The nostalgic quality of the black and white cinematography paints these locales in a romantic manner, the only way Frances would have it.
While music seems to benchmark each of the locales, Hot Chocolate’s “Every1’s a Winner” stands out for its sheer irony: Frances, down in the doldrums, wanders around Paris in the way that one does when there’s nothing to do and one is trying to have a good time. But, despite Colleen’s support back at the dance studio, no one is telling her she’s a winner. Feeling so adrift, she is unable to have that epiphany of self-actualization. Thus, the irony of having a song that works as a tribute to a lover play in the back ground while Frances’s slumped shoulder are seen walking away from the Eiffel Tower.
Something Old, Something New
Though Baumbach shot the film in color, the intention was always to have the film in black and white, an homage to films like Manhattan and Breathless. Sam Levy’s breathtaking cinematography was digitally produced on a Canon EOS 5D, but there’s a textural quality to the film that is perfectly reminiscent of the films of the French New Wave and Woody Allen’s black and white films.
Particularly interesting within the cinematography is not only the grainy filmic nature, but the uses of shallow focus, carefully utilized to show how myopic Frances can be (with Benji, with Colleen). Every composition is beautiful, from Frances’s newly empty apartment to the lonely travails through Paris.
It is the paradox of the film maintaining a textural sheen reminiscent of older films (even The Last Picture Show comes to mind) yet being produced by a DSLR that makes the film so ageless.
“27 is Old Though”
A reductive, but sort of accurate way to describe the film is, “Frances Ha is about post-graduate ennui”. This, of course, only touches on one of the many themes that the film approaches, but it seems articulately appropriate nonetheless. While Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture is a film that depicted similar themes while they were happening, perhaps Frances Ha has the slight advantage of being able to look back at such events, at least with regards to both films’ writers.
A lot of the evolution of Frances’s character lies in her ability to mature over the course of the film. It suits the narrative that the story is told episodically, and though it isn’t explicitly said or shown how long of a period the film takes place, one can guess that it’s about a year. Frances is 27, but is told over breakfast “you seem older… like a lot older, but less, like, grown up”. Her immaturity is evident in the little things; she spends her tax rebate on a dinner with Lev (Adam Driver, of Dunham’s Girls), she uses a credit card in the mail to go to Paris (“You shouldn’t do that, they want to keep you in debt.” “I know, I see documentaries.”), and she declines a desk job at the dance company she works at.
This latter example is maybe the most interesting and the mot indicative of Frances being a fully formed character: part of her actions appear to be childish, and this one comes out of a slightly more painful place. She is not offered a chance to be in the dance company she so desires to be a part of or really work with the head of the company she so admires (Charlotte D’Amboise), so being offered a significantly lower job is a blow to her ego, as it would be any person striving for a particular job after college. To save face, she tells Colleen that she’ll be working for another company as a dancer. This bald faced lie, despite feeling initially like a blip in the film (one probably says “aww” at first and then moves on) works as an interesting narrative pivot. She ends up working as a Resident Assistant at her alma mater, but nonetheless continues the lie when she sees Sophie again at an event.
There’s a Lacanian touch when, after having a blow out with Sophie after a dance, she turns on her side in bed and looks into the mirror. Though, her moment of self-actualization comes later, it’s a moment where she looks into herself and sees that her life is falling apart around her.
Even as Frances moves from place to place, a literal example of how uncertain life is for people of her age and younger, there is a singular kind of romanticization about the experience. Baumbach and Gerwig acknowledge that the post-graduate anxiety is not fun, per se, but seem to nonetheless understand it as a necessary part of learning and growing. The film isn’t egotistical enough to consider itself a self-righteous “lesson”, but Frances Ha is honest about what happens and validates those fears, adding a touch of hope.
Jump the Gun
The film jumps ahead to Frances getting the job at the dance company, choreographing her own show, and moving into her own place in Washington Heights. Just before this set of scenes pass by, Sophie leaves Frances’s Vassar dorm after having spent the night. Frances runs outside calling her name, but the car drives away. She looks down at her feet.
It seems odd that a film concerned with the growth and maturation of a character should make this kind of inconspicuous flash forward, but Baumbach eschews the conventional “coming-of-age” montage of epiphanies and instead goes straight for the end result. As opposed to being an oft tread story of how one young woman matures, Frances Ha instead is about how one young person reaches the stage where they realize they have to mature. Baumbach doesn’t make his audience sit through the motions, a move that would have undermined the entire film. Ending with a knowingly warm dolly forward and joke that reveals the origin of the film’s title, Frances Ha takes a handful of moments and make them the necessary predecessor to the transformation. Just as important, if not more so, than the transformation itself, those moments mean the most in someone’s life.
The Warmth and Imperfection
The best thing about Frances Ha (besides everything) is that it exists wholly in and of itself. It’s a film that seems to have always existed and was just waiting to be discovered. Through all the upheavals Frances endures, she comes out resilient and, finally, a Real Person. She and her best friend find a place in their relationship that works for them, making eyes with one another across the room. The one word that comes to mind when describing how funny, intelligent, warm, and wonderful the film is one that Frances uses in conversation often and with childlike wonder: It’s like magic.