RETROSPECTIVE: Frances Ha fumbles the bag and charms her way out of a quarter-life crisis

Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s debut collaboration, which turns 10 this year, untangles the uncertainties and joys of youth through a series of vignettes. Christine Lai reviews.

A remedy for those entering their ‘twenty-something’ years, Frances Ha is a film that presents a heartfelt study into youth and the messy chaos that’s bound to follow a well-intentioned but adrift woman clinging to idealism while the world around her moves on. Spontaneous and free-spirited, the film is endearing and easy to love, and offers a poignant emotional authenticity that is conveyed through the black-and-white pastiche of French New Wave cinema. Viewers are directed to watch a storyline that doesn’t follow a traditional arc of narrative development. Instead, we watch in amusement, with a raised eyebrow, at the succession of scenes that evince a portrait of an adrift 27-year-old woman in New York. The film leans into the protagonist’s quarter-life crisis, with an undercurrent of offhand humour and the noteworthy ability to laugh at oneself. 

The film follows Frances (Gerwig), a dancer and choreographer struggling to get by. We are introduced to her and her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner)  through a montage of their life together, which revels in their relationship and offers a home movie-esque cosiness.This vignette is juxtaposed with the following scene of Frances and her boyfriend, Dan (Michael Esper), who have differing ideas for Frances’ future. He wants her to move in with him, but she wants to continue living with Sophie. When pressed about the idea of living together, Frances asserts she can’t, to which Dan argues, “You can. You just don’t want to.” 

Greta Gerwig’s screen presence has an ease and naturalness to it, taking Frances and packaging her awkwardness in a loose bow while the character struggles through arrested development. In a story described as “very sad on the page” by Gerwig hersel, everything seems to go cruelly wrong for Frances, but she never visibly lets it get to her. Mark Twain’s characterisation of humour as “tragedy plus time” rings true, as the protagonist’s attitude prevents us from being conscious of the pain that she’s going through and allows us to watch someone simply exist. 

As the camera continues to roll, we see Frances’s inner monologue about her own behaviour as it occurs in real time. After a friend, Lev (Adam Driver), offers her a vintage film camera, he attempts to touch her shoulder in an assuming romantic play, but she immediately tenses her shoulder and vocalises an “Eh!” sound, as if to say, ‘Do not pass go, do not collect $200. Stop right there.’ Idiosyncrasies like these are made to look like they’re acts of Frances’ subconscious, as she’s seen to pause immediately after and reflect on her response in retrospect, almost as if she’s surprised by her own actions.

Both Gerwig and director Noah Baumbach aspired to make the film feel loose and unchoreographed, while having each scene be the opposite – choreographed to the finest detail. Some scenes would need 40 takes before they were finished, with Baumbach suggesting that often their attempt to get many pages to work in one shot may have resulted in perfectionism coming into play. 

Throughout the film, Frances is seen jumping from one share-house to another, with each address becoming a new chapter in the film. Notably, the locations are always someone else’s home. Her drifty, vagabond-like character portrays the adults-in-their-20s milieu – perhap even more relevant today than it was ten years ago – as one that is liberating and relaxed. She takes on the “undateable” nickname, ascribed to her by roommate and friend Benji (Michael Zegen), and acts almost in pantomime with accentuated flourishes when she talks. She’s also seen intending to commit to something before pulling back immediately, in dissonance. Her inner monologue comes into play and offers viewers a distinctive perspective into her mind; somewhat blasé about life but in a good, ‘this doesn’t bother me much’ way. In many ways, she’s the prime example of human imperfection. 

The film’s soundtrack follows her movements too, as she traipses from New York to Paris. In New York, strings and piano accompany Frances’ life, the lightness of the instrumentals perfectly suiting a character living in her own world. While in Paris, Hot Chocolate’s ‘Every 1’s A Winner’ gnaws at her, playing over an extended montage of her making her way through the city and amplifying the dissonance between her perception of the world and reality. The music choices represent a daydream-like fantasy that is on the verge of collapse. 

Teased by Sophie for never being able to account for her bruises, Frances is clumsy yet charming.Though in a sense a romcom, the romantic treatment that the film gets does not result in the traditional outcome that audience members expect from the trope. There is no love interest who sweeps her off her feet, nor is there a sudden change in context where she’s met fulfilled dreams. Acknowledging it’s more common to compromise happiness to realise one’s dreams than to compromise dreams to be happy, the film navigates the lens of romance through a discovery of new dreams. 

The dialogue alone is reason enough to watch the film. Written with a wispy sense of humour, scenes like Frances offering to shout her friend Lev dinner after receiving an unexpected tax refund are delectable. “I’m so embarrassed, I’m not a real person yet,” Frances tells Lev, after finding out the restaurant they’re at only takes cash or credit – both of which she lacks. She proceeds to run outside the neighbourhood, trying to find an ATM to save face, all the while being accompanied by Jean Constantin’s ‘L’Ecole Buissonnière’ . This song first played in the soundtrack of Les quatre cents coups (1959), a coming of age film that defined the New Wave cinema movement. Deftly borrowed by Baumbach for this sequence, the music pays homage to this era with utmost sincerity. 

Homage is further paid to French New Wave through the black and white presentation of the film, as well as the use of soundscapes from older films to echo the melancholy of losing friendships and youth. Contrasting that aspect of the film is the costume design, which largely celebrates and mirrors youth. Sprightly optimism is expressed through white and polka dots, while signs of maturity are donned in darker tones like black jackets and solid-coloured dresses.

Later in the film, there is a six-person dinner party with guests that all have a certain air of pride to their successes, Frances sticks out like a sore thumb. She doesn’t fit in with people like those who go around showing photos of their babies to one another and chat about their long-winded careers. As the night wears on and drinks are consumed, Frances presents a serious thought that is imbued in earnestness, a stark contrast to the more easygoing nature that we’ve seen of her. While the other 5 people are divorced from intimacy and feeling, Frances is openly vulnerable in a rare moment witnessed by the party attendees. 

Referred to as the ‘What I Want’ monologue, her speech is heartbreaking,insightful and especially comforting. This scene is candid while also nestling us into Frances’ fantasy, one which makes the viewer feel seen and understood. In true Frances form, though, she ends her speech with a hurried, “Blah, I sound stoned. I’m not stoned,”  before thanking the hosts for dinner and leaving, quickly breaking the spell of yearning. The other guests, however, are seen still mulling over thoughts from her words after she is gone. 

Though Frances’ character is carefree, she has an unconscious dependency on the people in her life because she doesn’t know where she is in life, nor does she know how to get to where she wants to be. Conversely, those around her, in the apartments and share-houses that she rooms with, do know where they are. This forms the crux of her complex; creating a distance from those who she cares about (namely, Sophie), and a longing for the ease of a relationship that is inaccessible for the moment. This is seen when Sophie moves out of their apartment and moves away from Frances to be with her partner. The audience are left to watch a story about a woman on her own, weighing up what she wants with what she needs. 

Frances Ha is an exercise in patience. Everything that Frances has by the end was available to her before – she just was not able to access it due to her pressing desires to do other things. She was offered an office job by her boss and had the opportunity to maintain an adult relationship with her best friend when she left for Japan with her partner, but Frances just couldn’t see it, yet. Without spoiling the conclusion, the final scene bookends the film, and wraps up Frances’ journey towards independence, perfectly. 

The film is polished and pristine, strung in a patchwork of episodeswith the utmost of care. In its style and construction, every beat in every sequence is lined with the spirit of youth and sells moments of joy and connection authentically. Baumbach and co-writer/lead actress Gerwig ended up falling in love with one another on set, which is both a beautiful sentiment in and of itself as well as a testament to the tenderness and affection that eminates from the film.

In an interview with the Criterion Collection, Baumbach stated, “I think intuitively with the black and white and the music, I had this feeling that we would kind of celebrate the kind of romance and the energy and the spirit of New York City and being young, and how good that can feel.” This film paints the human experience in an offbeat fashion and deserves many replays in 2022. Exhibiting the comfort of a ‘wrapped-under-blankets’ movie, Frances Ha is a hopeful story for those who may feel like they’re drifting through life, without an anchor. It’s a reminder to not take things too seriously and that there is charm in the unknown. 

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