Frances Ha, cinematic movement, and the French New Wave

Last June, I had the good fortune to visit New York City for a week. The first night there, I saw Frances Ha at Lincoln Center. In comparison to my usual experience at the Regal Cineplex, the subterranean theater was austerely quiet and serene. We watched a trailer for Dirty Wars. Then, we watched Frances Ha. I was stunned. How could the rest of our visit compete with that? Since then, I've gotten the movie on Criterion Blu-Ray, and I'm still in awe of it.

Frances Ha musically alludes to Truffaut's Jules and Jim (1962) and The 400 Blows (1959). The beginning of the movie, a rapid sequence of scenes establishing the close friendship of Frances (Greta Gerwig) and Sophie (Mickey Sumner) resembles the clipped opening shots of the beginning friendship of Jules and Jim, and Frances makes a kick while mock-fighting with Sophie that directly alludes to the French New Wave classic. The black and white cinematography also evokes Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979). The wonder is that these references don't prove pretentious. Whereas Jules and Jim allow themselves to be bewitched by Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), writers Noah Baumbach and Gerwig stay away from ever allowing Frances to get entangled in a love affair with anyone. What matters in Frances Ha is the relationship between the two women, and Frances' oftentimes pitiful attempts to live up to what she perceives should be her standard of living in New York. She also tries to succeed as a dancer, but as she points out, "I don't really do it." Often as not, Frances finds herself humiliated due to her old age (28), her "undateable" status, her goofiness, her tendency to live inauthentically, and her lack of money when compared to her trust-funded friends. Frances Ha works in part because it remains so merciless in emphasizing how little Frances matters to others, how easily she gives in to peer pressure, and how transitory her moments of victory can be. For much of the movie, she flounders about, and yet her portrait is subtle, extraordinarily concise, and never sentimental.

In part, Frances Ha is a study in cinematic movement. Baumbach alludes to the sweeping shots of bicycle riders in Jules and Jim, the running scenes of The 400 Blows, and he adds on several key transitional moments such as when Frances joyfully dances and runs along a New York street to David Bowie's "Modern Love" (she runs in the symbolic wrong direction, to the left, in part perhaps because she's just moved in with two guys who patronize her relative poverty). During a key montage when Frances visits her parents for Christmas (in actuality, Gerwig's parents in Sacramento), the sequence is framed by a smooth moving shot of Frances going down an escalator at the airport to her parents (who wait down below with a poodle), and then another one of her ascending at the end of her stay. The montage does not provide the usual satirical commentary on the idiocy of parents. They seem perfectly nice, supportive, and Frances appears to have a good visit, but there's also a sense that she's just treading water. She's visited them before, and all of this family support does nothing to fix her failure to progress back in New York. The parallel escalator tracking shots convey the gliding futility of the young perpetually financially dependent on their wealthier parents.

Frances Ha ultimately meditates on two kinds of movement--the fruitful and the doomed, and the difficulty of determining the former. Only late in the movie does Frances understand that her artistic ability to choreograph dancers matters the most. Otherwise, she's condemned to move from place to place, relationship to relationship, without reason or purpose, with a yo-yoing hopelessness. On impulse, Frances decides to visit Paris for a weekend and pay for it with a new credit card. Perhaps not coincidentally, she borrows a Parisian apartment from a lawyer played by Josh Hamilton who starred as Grover in Baumbach's first film (another classic) Kicking and Screaming (1995). The latter film treats with a whimsical black humor the dead-end pursuits of several recent Vassar graduates who refuse to grow up (Frances also returns to Vassar in the course of Frances Ha). Throughout Kicking and Screaming, Grover does his best to deny that he misses his girlfriend who had the gall to go to Prague. In Frances Ha, Hamilton appears in one dinner party scene as a lawyer named Andy, but his character's largely unused apartment in Paris reminded me of Grover's longing for Gail (Catherine Kellner) in Prague and the American tendency to romanticize European capitals.

Suffice it to say that, to the ironic tune of Hot Chocolate's "Everyone's a Winner," Frances' weekend stay in Paris is solitary, jet-lagged, pointless, and beyond despairing. She walks along the brick edge of the Seine without quite jumping in as Catherine does in Jules and Jim. Towards the end of the sequence, Frances Ha finds herself sandwiched in a small old-fashioned apartment house elevator, her face framed by the closing door much like Jean-Pierre Leaud's face is framed by the cage of his imprisonment in The 400 Blows. Baumbach's vision of Paris (with its Arc de Triomphe evoking a scene in Godard's Breathless (1960)) remains somehow the best thing about Frances Ha. In spite of all of the delightful cinematic allusions surrounding her, Frances has to learn how to fashion her own culture and be her own artist. The French New Wave classics supply the spontaneity and the visual pleasure to balance Baumbach's and Gerwig's frequently bleak portrait of Frances. By the end of the film, Frances moves beyond them.