Skip to main content

Sometimes it's good to do what you're supposed to do when you're supposed to do it.

Frances Ha
(2012)

Noah Baumbach’s films have a tendency to leave me a tad unfazed (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg). They’re just okay. He’s not the golden god of indie filmmaking some have made out. And his collaborations with Wes Anderson (who I do, ever so slightly, revere) elicited the latter’s weakest features (The Life Aquatic). So his most recent picture comes as pleasant surprise. For all its slightness, self-conscious quirkiness and French New Wave referencing, Frances Ha is an immensely likeable little film. Much of that may be down to the luminous presence of lead actress Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote the script with beau Baumbach.


Gerwig also appeared in Baumbach’s previous film, Greenberg. Her presence underscores the much over-used but unfortunately most appropriate epithet for this director’s mode; quirky. Frances Ha reeks of quirk. At times the soundtrack choices are just too much, suggesting Baumbach’s is dead set on the picture spontaneously combusting with loveable eccentricity. But Gerwig ensures that its heart remains intact, portraying her titular oddball with accompanying headstrong goofiness and an insight that outweighs Frances’ more infuriating qualities.


Frances is a struggling dancer, hitting her late-twenties (the film consistently jokes that she looks older than she is, to her vague dismay) and apparently accepting of a lifestyle where she hasn’t yet made it, got ahead or found her groove. She continues to nurse dream scenarios of success while taking comfort in a near-symbiotic relationship (they’re the same person but with different hair) with best pal and flatmate Sophie (Mickey Summer). Frances and her boyfriend split up because she is reluctant to part with Sophie, but when the latter moves out Frances is faced with trying to maintain her non-compromising but non-descript inclinations. She moves in with a couple of artists (Adam Driver’s Lev and Michael Zegen’s Benji) and finds herself gadflying from place to place (her family in Sacramento, her old college for a summer job, sharing an apartment with a fellow dancer, a weekend break in Paris).


Throughout, we see the contrast between Frances, who maintains the yen to follow her chosen career but lacks the assertiveness to take hold of her life, and her estranged best friend. She frequently states what she doesn’t want, but allows herself to be carried along by a stream of fallow encounters because she lacks a strong enough grip on what she does.  And then she concocts fabulations to make her lot seem better (as much for her own benefit as to sound impressive to others).  Whereas Sophie, at least from Frances’ point of view, reduces herself at every turn in the service of an unfulfilling relationship. The strained friendship between the two is at the core of Frances Ha, and the keynote speech comes during an initially toe-curlingly uncomfortable dinner attended by Frances (where she appears completely out of touch with her peer group, either through age or cultural reference points). She gushes her difficult-to-explain vision of the pure relationship she seeks, encapsulated by a moment where one catches the eye of one’s soulmate across a crowded party and that unspoken exchange holds within it a dimension of reality all its own. The pay-off to this comes late in the proceedings, when it is clear that Sophie (however platonically) occupies that space, but as much as Frances yearns for mutuality it is not returned.


The film is frequently very funny, in that very necessarily quirky fashion. Frances’ notions and inability to set forward on her path see her trying to replay her relationship with Sophie with others (she and Benji become undateables together, the girl she moves in with staunchly refuses to engage in play fights) and her idiosyncratic outlook and encounters yield some very funny scenes and dialogue (her excuse for failure being that “I’m not a real person”, a running gag concerning maritime greetings, her mad dash for an ATM, Benji working on a spec script for Gremlins 3).


But the film’s strongest sensation is a lingering melancholy beloved of the indie relationship dramedy. Frances’ lifestyle cannot persist because she does not have the means (unlike the arty rich boys) or company to allow it. She must move on, however reluctantly. There’s a tone that will be familiar to those who’ve seen enough Woody Allen or Jim Jarmusch films, and the decision to shoot in black-and-white appears to consciously evoke those directors. Certainly, the accepting note where the film finishes, with Frances alone but in her own apartment, having engaged in some compromise (she has taken the secretarial job with the dance company) in order to pursue her career goals (she has put on a well-received performance piece) has the feel of mid-period Woody Allen (1980s). There his characters find a point not of despair or celebration but a furrow somewhere in between, and so are able to continue.


There’s also the effect of the muse to consider in Frances Ha’s fruitful germination. Just as Allen continually worked with then wife Mia Farrow, so Baumbach is inspired by his romantic relationship with Gerwig. It appears to have paid creative dividends. Elsewhere, some have found the French New Wave referencing a distraction but it’s so long since I inveigled myself in that period I was only intermittently aware of the references (some of the soundtrack choices, which I found an affectation too far, are doubtless specific references so no doubt one’s appreciation for them relates to one’s capacity for homage).


And one’s appreciation of Frances Ha as a whole will ultimately rest on one’s indulgence of Gerwig. I found her performance beguiling; a mass of foibles but with an essential soulfulness blazing through the mistakes and self-sabotaging misdirections. Gerwig also stars in Baumbach’s upcoming feature, which bodes well on this evidence. He may have traversed from slightly off-putting quirkiness to winning quirkiness.


***1/2

Popular posts from this blog

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018) (SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless  Heat  rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but  Den of Thieves  is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists!

Don’t Look Up (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s testament to Don’t Look Up ’s “quality” that critics who would normally lap up this kind of liberal-causes messaging couldn’t find it within themselves to grant it a free pass. Adam McKay has attempted to refashion himself as a satirist since jettisoning former collaborator Will Ferrell, but as a Hollywood player and an inevitably socio-politically partisan one, he simply falls in line with the most obvious, fatuous propagandising.

This guy’s armed with a hairdryer.

An Innocent Man (1989) (SPOILERS) Was it a chicken-and-egg thing with Tom Selleck and movies? Did he consistently end up in ropey pictures because other, bigger big-screen stars had first dibs on the good stuff? Or was it because he was a resolutely small-screen guy with limited range and zero good taste? Selleck had about half-a-dozen cinema outings during the 1980s, one of which, the very TV, very Touchstone Three Men and a Baby was a hit, but couldn’t be put wholly down to him. The final one was An Innocent Man , where he attempted to show some grit and mettle, as nice-guy Tom is framed and has to get tough to survive. Unfortunately, it’s another big-screen TV movie.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

Archimedes would split himself with envy.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) (SPOILERS) Generally, this seems to be the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad outing that gets the short straw in the appreciation stakes. Which is rather unfair. True, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger lacks Tom Baker and his rich brown voice personifying evil incarnate – although Margaret Whiting more than holds her own in the wickedness stakes – and the structure follows the Harryhausen template perhaps over scrupulously (Beverly Cross previously collaborated with the stop-motion auteur on Jason and the Argonauts , and would again subsequently with Clash of the Titans ). But the storytelling is swift and sprightly, and the animation itself scores, achieving a degree of interaction frequently more proficient than its more lavishly praised peer group.