Barbenheimer: 'Frances Ha'
July 21 will see the simultaneous release of writer/director Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer and Barbie, directed by Greta Gerwig from a script she co-wrote with Noah Baumbach. In anticipation of this momentous event, I am become BARBENHEIMER, the retrospective of worlds. We continue today with 2013's Frances Ha, the first writing collaboration between Gerwig and Baumbach.
Once upon a time, I did not particularly love watching Noah Baumbach movies. It's not that I thought they were bad, necessarily. But Baumbach has a boundless fascination with white, educated, bitter, narcissistic, immature, selfish assholes (they're cringe comedies with the cringe factor turned up so far the dial has broken off). And I don't need to pay twenty bucks to spend time with white, educated, bitter, narcissistic, immature, selfish assholes. I know quite a few of them already, thank you very much (some people, I'm sure, would say I am one of them), and I don't find them all that multi-layered or interesting. Cinema's best despicable protagonists are fun to unpack psychologically; it's too easy to see through the veneer of characters as nakedly insecure as those in Baumbach films.
My feelings about Baumbach changed once he started collaborating with Greta Gerwig. A high-ranking member of the mumblecore movement, Gerwig first worked with Baumbach, as an actress only, in 2010's Greenberg (which, incidentally, Baumbach conceived with his then-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh). Eventually, she and Baumbach wound up as a couple, and Gerwig both starred in and co-wrote the director's next movie, Frances Ha. And on the one hand, Frances Ha is still very much a Baumbach film. But on the other hnad, Gerwig's input and influence are very clear, and go a long way towards softening the blow.
Because, yeah: The movie's titular protagonist (Gerwig) is white, educated, narcissistic, immature, selfish asshole. But she's also 27-year-old, perpetually effervescent Greta Gerwig. You'll note that I did not use the adjective "bitter" to describe Gerwig's character - because whatever else Frances is, she's not bitter. Roger Greenberg, as portrayed by Ben Stiller at the age of 45, has a storm cloud that follows him everywhere he goes; he simply cannot help but spread misery like a virus. And because he's middle-aged, it seems unlikely that there's hope for him to change. You're watching a grown man behave like a not-especially-bright or kind child; it's hard not to root for some horrible, violent fate to befall him, or, barring that, to just want the goddamn movie to be over already.
But Frances is suffering from a quarter-life crisis, not a mid-life crisis. And a relatable quarter-life crisis at that! She's on the cusp of thirty but often behaves like she's on the cusp of thirteen, her career as a dancer isn't where she wants it to be, she's barely making enough money to survive, and her best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), first announces that she's moving out to live with another friend in a better location, and shortly thereafter falls in love, gets engaged, and unceremoniously moves to Japan for the sake of her soon-to-be-husband's career. Frances' love for Sophie is central to her sense of self - she keeps telling people that she and Sophie are "the same person with different hair" - and it's clear that this upheaval makes feels inadequate and insecure and abandoned. She doesn't want things to change - somehow never seriously anticipated that things would inevitably change - and so Sophie's evolution hits her like a smack in the face. I think a lot of us have gone through some version of this, probably when we were around Frances' age. We do not want some horrible, violent fate to befall her.
And yeah, she handles these soul-shaking events fucking terribly - she's socially awkward, she has no filter and constantly puts her foot in her mouth, she lashes out at her friends in anger, she makes brash, foolish decisions - but she didn't ruin anyone else's life like Greenberg or Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) in The Squid and the Whale (Greenberg ruined a record deal for his band, ostensibly ending their career, and Berkman ruined his son - all Frances ruins is a dinner party). She can still turn things around - and by the end of the movie, she does turn things around!
Gerwig influence on Baumbach extends beyond her mere presence, however. It's impossible to deny her contributions as a writer, too. There's nothing in Baumbach's earlier work that matches the emotional warmth between Greta and Sophie at the beginning of this movie, when they're still on good terms, and you really believe that there's a lot of history and intimacy between the two young women. Additionally, the dialogue often has the rat-a-tat-tat rhythm of old screwball comedies, which makes Frances Ha a dry run for the couple's next collaboration, Mistress America.
Baumbach, in turn, is aesthetically playful in ways he never was before. He's constantly invoking the French New Wave: In the black and white cinematography by the late, great, Harris Savides, in the editing by Jennifer Lame (who, funny enough, has now gone to make two movies with our friend Mr. Christopher Nolan), in the wardrobe and art direction by Sam Lisenco, and on the soundtrack, which utilizes music by composers such as Georges Delerue (Le Mépris), Jean Constantin (The 400 Blows), and Antoine Duhamel (Pierrot le Fou). Not only that, but Baumbach playfully undermines his playfulness by not invoking the French New Wave during a sequence in which Frances spends a weekend in Paris! Instead he factiously uses a very American song for this part of the movie - Hot Chocolate's 1978 hit, "Every 1's a Winner." Because, duh, Frances is NOT a winner (at least not yet), and, no, despite her aspirations, her life isn't as romantic as an old French film.
As I said earlier, you do get the sense, by the end, that Frances has started to turn things around, and that she's probably going to be okay in the long run. That makes Frances Ha the perfect coming-of-age story for the Millennial generation - when it comes to growing up, we may be behind schedule, but we'll get there eventually.