celluloid oxygen

film reviews and essays by Tess Connellan

Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2013)


Said it was before, but it bears repeating now:

"Fell in love with a girl, I fell in love once and her name was Frances;

She’s in love with the world, New York, her best friends, and the time she dances;

You turn and say, “Are you alright?”

She says, ‘I must be fine, ‘cause I’m young and happy,

Let’s all run fast and get blind-drunk, now,

Life is dealing tough cards but we won’t be sappy, now!’”


There, that saves the effort of writing a terrible wannabe-catchy opening!

“Frances Ha” is the latest film from indie king Noah Baumbach, the sensitive soul who makes you laugh at upsetting things with films like “The Squid and the Whale” and “Greenberg”. This is the tale of Frances (Greta Gerwig), a 27-year-old New Yorker with blonde hair, clumsy limbs, determinedly high spirits, and – like basically everyone around her age – a life that she makes up as she goes along. She has practically-no apartment, practically-no job and practically-no clear prospects. I am firmly of the belief that there are no grownups in this world: no-one has any idea what they’re doing, you just get better at pretending you do. I have always thought this, but have had it confirmed a hundredfold in the time since my schooling ended and I strode into the Real World on shaky legs. As such, Frances is both a comrade and a heroine, as she will be to everyone who has been, is, or will be, young and clueless. So, everyone. Her personality twitches, artistic temperament and deadpan snark might appeal particularly to young women of that calibre (dingdingding) but I believe her flaky battle both against and alongside adulthood is something in all our hearts.*

Baumbach stitches together a beautiful slice of life, I continually forgot it was a film. He sidesteps showiness of any kind and simply lets his camera observe the action like a silent artist sketching the Ophelia-esque girl swimming in the lake next to his house. If Ophelia had a battered leather jacket and few social graces, and the lake was asphalt-bottomed with yellow cab fish. This film will probably end up sitting with Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” as masterpieces of lifelike cinema that are often dismissed as pretentious or strange or trying too hard – I’ve got news for you, life is strange, and it has long pauses and no “beats”. Films that are simultaneously spare and all-over-the-place come closest to portraying the indescribable weirdness we put up with every day. People who can’t deal with such works seem to me to be people who can’t deal with the unreality of reality (thank you, Mr Fitzgerald, another splendid Manhattanite).

Baumbach and leading lady Gerwig penned the endlessly clever screenplay themselves, and holding the work close to their veins like that really shows. The plot may wander a little, but I think you can overlook that to appreciate the realism. In life you say things you don’t mean, or hurt people you care about, or do things for no reason, or pretend you like people – so why not have that in a film? It’s a deft cocktail of naturalism, snark, vulnerability and optimism. Like Woody Allen crossed with Lena Dunham – I don’t care what a stereotype of “intellectual dramedy in New York” that is, Allen and Dunham are admired for a reason. A film that cross-pollinates the two is thereby one worthy of praise. It’s indeed a love letter to The Big Apple as much as its plucky youngsters; I can imagine Brooklyn locals nudging each other in the cinema as Frances trips over outside their favourite dumpling joint that no-one knows about.

Miss Gerwig is as good an actress as she is a writer, and that’s a high bar to leap to. You will fall in love with her (fall in love once and almost completely…) by the end. Her Frances is playful and clumsy and selfish and sad and benevolent and clueless and upbeat all at once; she’s a work of genius. We all know a Frances, and if we don’t then we are one. Aside from that flawless character building, Gerwig is better at comedic work than most of the Apatow et Al. company that graces modern laugh-ins. Her way of discouraging a boy’s wordless “will-you-fuck-me” enquiry caused my cinema’s audience to drown out the rest of the scene with hysterics. All the supporting players slide effortlessly into their roles, as they should with the quality of the material they’re working with – you put the perfect words of a smug-newly-engaged-person into an actor’s mouth, and they will come across like a smug-newly-engaged-person.

New York’s bitter beauty is on full display with Sam Levy’s lush black-and-white camerawork – that’s right, it plays the monochrome card, recalling early Allen in more than just words. Whatever cynic’s snark claims black-and-white to be the refuge of the pretentious or hackneyed forgets the appeal of it to begin with: it’s gorgeous. There are auditory delights to be had as well, the soundtrack listing flies from Bach to Bowie, as indecisive as its heroine. Seriously, that’s what she is. That’s what I am. That’s what so many of us are. It’s OK not to be OK. We have no idea what we’re doing. Neither does Frances. And that’s beautiful.

*And if you say it isn’t, then I will ask whether you would say the same if Frances was male, and then raise one eyebrow as you splutter. If, however, you raise the point of everyone in these kinds of soul-search-films being white, I will invite you in for tea and chocolate biscuits. Now there’s a conversation that needs to be had.