Woody Allen’s Manhattan opens with that stunning overture of “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin. It’s like a love letter to the city, the great colossus, a romanticized land of bustle and possibility. The film is a portrait of the people and the place, but the opening sets the mood, and Allen is that jitter and mewl of clarinet.
Something about Frances Ha reminded me a lot of Manhattan. It’s in black and white, so there’s that, and Greta Gerwig’s title character is a total neurotic, though a different breed of neurotic from Allen. The characters are much younger, the time is different, the city more expensive, yet it’s another honest portrait of people and place.
Frances Ha is a mumblecore Manhattan. If Noah Baumbach had added an overture to this film about hipsters, it’d be “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem, and Gerwig would be that restless and stumbling piano.
[This review was originally posted as part of our 2012 New York Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of the film.]
Director: Noah Baumbach
Release Date: May 17, 2013 (limited)
At one point in Frances Ha, Frances says that the only people who can afford to be artists in New York are rich. If you’ve lived in Brooklyn (Williamsburg especially) and have hung around people trying to make art, it’s an accurate assessment. There are still starving artists in the city, but a lot of young people are just playing starving artist on daddy’s dime — there’s more cred in the outward signs of struggle. Frances Ha isn’t so judgmental about them, though, and I wouldn’t like the film if it was. If you’ve had friends like these, you’d understand. Beneath the pretense and the privilege is a good person, or at least someone you like hanging out with. Everyone’s self-centered yet self-aware. It’s that self-awareness that made me unable to dismiss characters like Benji (Michael Zegen), a would-be writer, or Lev (Adam Driver), a would-be sculptor. They remind me of people I know, good friends, who are trying to get by. They are who they are; can’t hate a peacock for being a peacock.
Come to think of it, it might have been Frances’s best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) who said that thing about artists in New York. They’re roommates, and the two of them are alike in a lot of ways. They have similar mannerisms, they make similar jokes. Frances says they’re the same person with different hair. (Or did Sophie say that?) They’re both perpetual would-be’s like lots of twenty-somethings in the city: Frances is a would-be dancer, Sophie is a would-be writer/literary editor. When they talk, they talk in that hipper-than-thou yet self-effacing fashion. It’s the telltale speech pattern of the overeducated and undermotivated.
They’re sort of like twin sisters, and you can sense that they’ve both needed each other to get through the wilderness of college and early adult life. This is another bit of honesty in Frances Ha: we take on the traits of people we like and admire, and sometimes we can’t imagine who we’d be or what our lives would be like without them. Again, it reminds me of people I know in New York, and I appreciated the way that Baumbach and Gerwig’s script explored the close friendship between two women. It’s a chemical bond. “We’re like an old lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex anymore,” one of them tells the other.
Manhattan was about romances in the city, but Frances Ha isn’t a movie about romances. Thankfully. It avoids the reductive cliche of so many films with female leads: she’s single and inept, she meets the right guy, then her life is magically transformed for the better. Those are movies without heroines; they’re movies with damsels in distress waiting for heroes. Frances isn’t a damsel in distress. She doesn’t want to fall in love necessarily, she just wants to create art, and that means dancing. She’s an apprentice at a dance studio, and you question her seriousness about a career as a dancer. Her demeanor lacks simple grace, and she seems more at ease in clogs and a bomber jacket. Benji says she walks like a dude, and he’s right.
But Frances Ha is still a break-up movie and a relationship movie. Sophie meets a guy who gets in the way of her friendship with Frances, and their close bond gets broken. Sophie is okay with it since she’s got Patch (Patrick Heusinger), another New York archetype I know. Frances, not so much. She has to figure out how to get by on her own. She’s never had to do that in her life since she always had Sophie. If Frances wasn’t lost enough in her mid-to-late twenties, she is now — no compass, no sextant, no map. This might be the first time in her 27 years of life that she wasn’t complacent.
One of the great things about Gerwig in the film is her social awkwardness and self-deprecation. It’s so real, and a few scenes recall similar instances a lot of my friends and I have experienced. There’s a dinner party with some older and more established friends of an acquaintance. It’s after a Christmas visit home, which is just what Frances needed (because one of the things about living in the city is that you need to get the hell out of the city every now and then). She’s been unmoored, with no apartment to call her own and no friends to confide in. The dinner crowd chatters about travel and children while she’s squirming through the small talk. She tries to interact but it sounds like she’s talking to an invisible Sophie. There’s an unspoken “God, I’m retarded/awkward” in her face after almost every line, but she’s powering through. Everyone else is silently judging her, and it made me like Frances more.
There’s something about watching a screw up be a screw up that can be awkward but interesting, and it works with Baumbach’s observational approach. The film’s also packed with references, like the usual fingerprints of Truffaut and Godard that wind up in Baumbach’s work, and one explicit homage to Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood). Sometimes references seem too clever, but they work in Frances Ha because it’s in character. Reference is the nature of twenty-something would-be’s living in New York, another accurate observation about people in this place. Some young artists are built out of references rather than real life. To refer to another work of art is a sign of status. Frances might be living in reference, hoping that the movies she’s seen or books she’s read might show her a way. In a moment of exhilaration, she runs down the street to David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” For people who haven’t seen the Carax film, it’s a thrill; for people who have, it’s a thrill with indie cred.
There’s a scene with Sophie and Frances together during better, more complacent times. They’ve each had ho-hum days, and they play enabler for each other. They tell each other the future will be great and recount it like a bedtime story: Frances will be a famous dancer and Sophie will write a book about her. They want this without having to work for it, they want this handed to them. They are still entitled children, little girls dreaming big dreams without the drive to make them come true. What they might want is a prince (in any form) to save the day. Real life doesn’t work that way. Maybe this break-up is what both of them need.
Frances gets lost. She finally gets to experience the lonely, listless sadness of the twenties that everyone goes through. It takes most of us a couple years to soldier through it, but she does it in a few months. But it’ll be good for Frances, because she’s finally working things out on her own. No Prince Charming, no sweeping off her feet. Whether she triumphs or fails, Frances does it by herself, on her own terms, without needing to be rescued, alone. This is a coming-of-age story for people with arrested development. Whatever happens, Frances at least gets what anyone who lives in New York wants: to be the hero of their own little story.