Saturday, September 8, 2012

Frances Ha (2012)

I saw Frances Ha last night with a friend. He loved it. “This is how people actually talk,” he told me on the way out. He feels that way about Noah Baumbach’s other films too. But I don’t.

It’s been hours now and I’m still bothered by that. Not by Frances Ha itself, which I think is a fine film, at least for some people, starring Greta Gerwig in certainly the most delicate, sympathetic and charming role I’ve seen her in. I’m more concerned about my friend’s claim. We grew up in the same town and now live in the same city. We don’t share quite the same social circles, but we’re not that different. And yet, watching Frances Ha last night, I kept thinking: “Nobody talks this way.”

Most of the men and women in Frances Ha are young and smart. They’re New Yorkers in their late-20s, on the cusp of maturity, which excites and frightens them. Furthermore, they know it—they know that they’re excited and frightened, I mean—and so they chatter away with a breeziness and cleverness they know is a front. This I can accept. But Baumbach is so insistent on this tone—this ironic detachment from nearly every line—that it’s elevated to a stylized speech. To me, Baumbach’s snark is less a mirror held up to life than the Millennial version of the gunshot declarative of Film Noir.

I can’t call this a negative; I can only say it’s not for me. Frances Ha will probably make you laugh. It’s a comedy composed of wise observations, populated with true little moments, including one where Frances, desperate to get cash quickly from an ATM, still hovers her finger over the “Yes/No” transaction charge screen in hesitation. I’ve done that. I’ve also experienced the same, weird sense of loss that Frances does when her longtime friend and roommate moves out and onto a very different life, leaving Frances lonely, and unsure if she’s headed in the right direction, or really, any direction at all.

Gerwig is beautiful in this film. Fragile too. I felt for her character, wanted to believe in her, in the truth of her, and sometimes did. But the self-awareness of the material kept us apart. You will like this film for Gerwig even if you don’t like the film. You may also like that it’s in black and white, and partly shot in Paris, and feels like it knows that it looks like something made in France in the Fifties.

Frances Ha was not for me. But I’ll leave you with the moment that moved me most—a little one that occurred about halfway through the film, when Frances was bottoming out. In her bedroom, late at night, depressed and drunk, Frances lies down on her bed to stop the spins. She turns her head to one side. And then, Baumbach captures Gerwig’s face in closeup. In that moment, at least to me, she looked just like Grace Kelly. And there was no irony to Grace Kelly.

Frances Ha screened Friday night, August 8, 2012, at the Ryerson Theatre in Toronto, part of the Toronto International Film Festival.


  1. Yes, this was my thought too ... I enjoyed the film but I was thinking no one is that witty, that smart in their day to day dialogue. It was like Woody Allen meets Godard (as in the film Breathless) - enjoyable but not believable. But maybe that's enough for film viewers?

  2. As I wrote above, I have a friend who claims to be surrounded with such people. Even if that's true, I don't think I envy him.

    Mumblecore's on an opposite cinematic pole from silent film. Not that silent film is a style, exactly; but it demands of the actor, and viewer, everything Mumblecore eschews.