Film Reviews

Frances Ha Noah Baumbach

Rating - 5/10

Noah Baumbach's latest film in his series on educated urbanites is a Generation Y character study lost primarily in the privilege of Brooklyn lofts.  The titular, twenty-seven-year-old heroine, Frances Halliday (who hacks off the last two syllables of her surname for a mailbox nameplate) is disguised as a struggling performance artist.  However, she is afforded the luxury of her foolhardy decisions by taking spontaneous transnational trips and fine dining excursions.  The film's stabs at a light-hearted conversational air are undercut by one of its own between Frances (Greta Gerwig) and her on-and-off roommate Benji (Michael Zegen).  "Don't call yourself poor," he interjects.  "That's offensive to actual poor people."  The film is populated by affluent aspiring artists who belittle one another sarcastically because they believe it could be the instigation towards future recognition.  Frances Ha, like many indie films before it, is encumbered by this romantic obsession with appearances.  Filmed in black-and-white on Cannon 5D digital cameras, it takes a cue from Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979), an ode to the borough of New York City, and flirts with the French New Wave, inconsistently applying musical cues from Godard's Contempt (1963) and Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959).  If Frances Ha can be considered a slight success, it conveys the anxieties of modern living in a megalopolis, which necessitates professional connections and the persistent pretense of extroversion.

Before the film's narrative throws Frances' ambitions into turmoil, it opens with a playful montage between her and best friend/roommate/twin "with different hair," Sophie (Mickey Sumner), frolicking in the streets like a couple of quirky pixies.  Frances' bouncy energy well-serves this scene, which facilitates her introduction as an apprentice dance teacher.  Sophie's found work at Random House to establish her writing career but rather unconsciously relies upon her faceless boyfriend Patch (Patrick Heusinger)'s financial support in the competitive national epicenter.  In a subsequent scene, Frances and her partner Dan (Michael Esper) dispute their relationship status that's become entangled with their separate living arrangements, seemingly foreshadowing an inopportune split between Frances and Sophie as well.  Soon after Sophie decides to room with unseen friend Lisa, she joins Patch to live in Japan indefinitely.  To trace Frances' whereabouts amidst location-leaping, the chapters of the film are designated by the addresses where she's temporarily staying.  To the tourist, they do little to provide a sense of direction but simply allow for a momentary rest in-between the rather erratic behavior of the cast.  In the film's most memorable montage at 22 Catherine St, Frances dashes and spins and buoyantly through crosswalks to the tune of David Bowie's "Modern Love," a perfect musical manifestation for an ambitious twentysomething's romantic ideal of the city (that was perhaps cultivated through the very films Frances Ha takes as influence). 

Although frequently dismissed in the self-serving, insular dialogues that have continually driven Baumbach's filmic career, Gerwig's charmingly clumsy physical performance occasionally steals the show.  Regrettably, the choreography is subordinate to the cadence of conversation.   Character anxieties are translated into continuous subconscious belittlement, as if the biting manner of speaking is commonplace, smothering even the potentially likable Frances in self-absorption.  Many of the accusations or recurring jokes (that Frances is "undateable," for instance) come across as mean-spirited, and the scattered, stylistic homages to French cinema feel thematically retrofitted.  Further, while the interplay between Frances and Sophie is intended to be identifiable, their collective antics frequently veer towards the absurd.  Perhaps this discrepancy can be attributed to the awkwardness of maintaining an intimate friendship through not only physical but also financial degrees of separation.  In its final act, Frances Ha prefers to take a spirited page from fairy tales, shirking the responsibility and acclimation that once seemed necessary in the character's arc.  Although the application should work in reverse, the film has been compared many times over to Lena Dunham's recent HBO series, Girls, for its similar tonal emphasis on privileged post-graduates in New York and the mutual presence of actor Adam Driver (who appears here as a suave womanizer named Lev).  Dating back to the mid-1990s, Baumbach's aesthetic is clearly of significant value for the Millennial Generation of writers and directors, but Frances Ha, as a final production, ironically feels more borrowed than bona fide, more tired than true.