REVIEW: References to Things Past in ‘Frances Ha’
A side perk of going to see sneak previews at the Arclight Hollywood is the audience that a particular film will attract, a group that is willing to catch it so late at night before it officially opens. Last week at The Great Gatsby, for instance, it was girls and gheys in Jazz Age costume, many of who clapped and cooed when Leonardo Di Caprio first spun around and faced the camera with that Titanic smile. Last night at Noah Baumach’s Frances Ha I was seated in front of a half row of hipsters, three of whom had seats corresponding to their respective ages: twenty-three, twenty-four, and twenty-five. They noted this with quippy sarcasm that immediately bounded into banter that informed me that many of them were young TV writers, but real ones, unlike the character of one of Frances’ roommates, Benji, who is just a wannabe hopping from one spec script for drek to the other with a passionate New York insouciance.
Most of the screens at the Arclight last night were devoted to Star Trek: Into Darkness, but it would have been inconceivable for the group behind me to see that. I had briefly debated reviewing Star Trek instead of Frances Ha, but I’m trying to resist thoroughly commercial fare until summer overwhelms us and I’m left with no choice.
For as long as hipsters have been around it’s been fashionable to crap on them, and they are the first to ‘take the piss’ about themselves: it’s impossible to out-ironize the chronically ironic. Having dated a quasi-hipster on and off for three years—one who had trained up in Portland, OR, the cradle of hipsterism, and who even used the word ‘Ahoy!’ at the end of his emails, just as Adam Driver’s character in Frances Ha does in his text messages—I don’t have any problem with them per se other than the fact that I just don’t find much of hipster fashion stylish or attractive. I am such a visual person that I’m sure my head instinctively recoils a few inches when I see something that is aesthetically displeasing. The few times I have been to Williamsburg and Greenpoint over the past few years, I’ve kept my gaze firmly on the pavement.
More than not having a problem with hipsters as people, I agree with Greta Gerwig, who plays the eponymous heroine of the film and co-wrote the script with romantic partner Baumbach, when she said in an interview with Marlow Stern of The Daily Beast:
If I didn’t know the connections of people being so mean about Williamsburg or mean about hipsters, if I was coming from Sacramento to New York and found this neighborhood where there was a bunch of people who wanted to be artists and liked good books and music and dressed cool and liked nice coffee, I’d be like, holy shit, I’ve found my home. It’s only because there are all these bad connotations with it that people get nasty about it. But I think hipsters are great. At the heart of it, they care about music and care about art, and a lot of them are trying to be artists. If I didn’t know that I was supposed to hate Williamsburg, I would love it.
As an urban person whose age doesn’t correspond to his seat number, who has learned that sarcasm and irony are simply cheap, secondhand comforters that ward off the chill of insecurities, I found the first ten minutes of Frances Ha jarring. For a start, it’s shot in black and white on the Canon 5D Mark II, the exact camera that was used on a student film I worked on this week— at times I thought it might have been even lower tech than that, maybe analog video, a favorite of hipster fimmakers. But once I bought into the film’s particular look and reality—via the superlative, unique dialogue and pacing, and the equally fluid, believable characterizations—I began to appreciate it more than I possibly could have Star Trek, even though that color-by-numbers blockbuster has far more bang for the buck in terms of ratio of ticket price to budget.
Just as hipsters are inveterate collectors of objects and cultural references from recent history—normally from the late-50s onwards—Frances Ha appears to pay homage to early Truffaut and British films of the 60s about quirky, ungainly young women from small towns who are discovering their identity and battling the opinions of others in the big city, specifically Georgie Girl with Lynn Redgrave. In that respect, Frances Ha is the cinematic equivalent of postmodern literature in sense of the intertextuality between the way the film is shot/how the story is told and the motivations and interests of the characters themselves.
Frances is a twenty-seven-year old modern dancer from Sacramento, CA, who is too ungainly to be any good at her dream, a wrenching disability for any artist. As a human resources person once said to me, “It’s not hard to fire someone for not doing his or her job properly. The heartbreaking thing is when they just don’t have the ability to do it.” The film begins with an exploration of Frances’ life in Brooklyn with her bestest friend in the whole wide world, Sophie. As is noted a few times, the two are closer than most married couples, albeit without the sex. Frances soon learns that change is inevitable, all good things must come to an end just as bad things do: her formerly impregnable relationship with her bestie is breached when Sophie moves to Tribeca and becomes engaged to a yuppie. Try as she might, she cannot move back to the past because it is no longer present, and the present is proving to be a country she doesn’t particularly want to live in.
In true hipster fashion, the film heads off any references to Lena Dunham and her HBO show Girls, which is about similar characters in the same neighborhood and circumstances, by acknowledging them early and casting Girls star Adam Driver as a rich-kid ‘artist,’ who becomes one of Frances’ roommates after the stability of her life with Sophie is rocked and she becomes itinerant. (One of the nicer, more French New Wave touches is the title cards that punctuate the film with the various addresses of where Frances lands.)
Just as it is ultra-low budget, Frances Ha is a slight film with little plot and much chatter, none of it superfluous or meaningless; rather, all of it is germane in painting a detailed portrait of the artist as a young hipster. Yet Frances is an outsider even in Hipsterburg, as is evident from the way she is juxtaposed with her peers: you know that in the future, once the others have discarded their callow fashions and half-baked creative aspirations, they will settle into normalcy, whereas she will always be vital, authentic and unique; she can’t help it. And that is a hallmark of a real artist, successful or not.
One thing I found somewhat unbelievable was Frances’ lack of emotionality; she seems almost autistic in her refusal to break down in the face of so much hurt and rejection from the ones she loves or looks up to. But on further reflection I’ll buy it: in many ways Frances is autistic, or perhaps the lack of even a hint of histrionics is part of her general clumsiness.
In the end, I was completely charmed by this film, possibly more than I am by Girls, or equally so but in a different way; whereas Lena Dunham’s Hannah is a brute so appalling you can’t help watching her, Greta Gerwig’s Frances is a cheery, hapless young woman similar to Poppy in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, for whom you only wish and hope the best—the dramatic tension revolves around the strong probability she’ll never get that best, which keeps you engaged in what is otherwise a willfully unthrilling plot. While Frances’ dreams might not come true exactly as she originally hoped, she does end up somewhat better than she started, but not triumphantly so, which is more often than not how things play out for creatives in real life. And this is the kind of realism I’m seeking in dramatic film these days, and is among the main reasons I would recommend seeing this.