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Non-Review Review: Frances Ha

Frances Ha is Noah Baumbach’s tribute to early Woody Allen. Shot in black-and-white and set mostly in New York (although with two brief adventures elsewhere), the film seems like a genuinely affectionate homage to one of the greatest comedians to work in film. However, Frances Ha can’t help but feel like a pale imitation of a master filmmaker. Frances Ha is occasionally charming and clever, but it suffers from too much pretension. It lacks the strange charm of Allen’s best work, the sense of empathy the director can generate for his listless and often self-absorbed leads.

The biggest problem with Frances Ha is that it feels like a knock-off of a much stronger director.

Out in the cold...

Out in the cold…

There are moments of wit in Francis Ha. There’s something delightfully charming about Baumbach’s decision to score the film with a combination of eighties pop (Hot Chocolate! eighties Bowie!) and more typically indie fare. Greta Gerwig does a good job in the title role. She conveys a sense of confusion and awkwardness that suits the material remarkably well, a sense of somebody who probably needs to start making decisions as time starts ticking away.

There’s something to be said for the decision to try to offer a movie about a listless slacker twenty-seven-year-old who happens to be a woman. Frances Ha feels like an attempt to offer a female version of the protagonist we’ve come to know and love from the Judd Atapow comedies. She drinks heavily. She has relationship troubles. Her career of choice (apprentice at a school of modern dance) isn’t going anywhere. She attends parties in cramped apartments. She urinates in public. She rough houses with her best friend.

Play fight!

Play fight!

It’s nice to see a film which acknowledges that the Atapow-ian adult child is not gender exclusive. If Atapow’s protagonists are overgrown manchildren, does that make Frances an overgrown womanchild? The fact that the term sounds so alien is probably an indicator that Francis Ha is long overdue. It’s nice to get the sense that being listless and lost into your late twenties is an experience that can occur regardless of gender.

There’s something to be said for the way that indie film makers have appropriated the iconography and the language of the mainstream Atapow-ian comedy. Last year, Jeff Who Lives at Home felt like a more spiritual take on the popular comedy subgenre, and its influence is obvious on Baumbach’s Frances Ha.

The big smoke...

The big smoke…

And the film’s black and white cinematography, along with its glimpse of the New York seen and experience by a particular type of person, is quite wonderful. It’s arguably this aspect of the film which most evokes Woody Allen, along with the script’s preference for long and strange conversations that seem more like perpetually-drifting tangents than substantive discussions. At the same time, the dialogue never quite sparkles like that of Woody Allen. There aren’t too many memorable one-liners, and little of the film’s dialogue has punch or vigour.

Of course, part of the problem might be the fact that Allen’s films were the product of a very different New York, and a very different world. His characters are retroactively recognisable as a certain type of entitled and privileged individual, but they remain accessible and human. Most of the cast of Frances Ha feel like a bunch of ironic posers more concerned with the illusion of depth than anything truly substantive.

Drinking it in...

Drinking it in…

At dinner, after Frances picks up the bill, her date remarks how this doesn’t mean he’ll sleep with her. She is confused. “I’m pretending to be a sexually-liberated woman,” he helpfully explains. She replies, “I get that.” The film occasionally feels a little too cynical, a little too jaded, a little too obsessed with its own intelligence. “Do you know what Victoria Woolf book this reminds me of?” Francis asks at one point, and whenever she passive-aggressively attacks her best friend – who works at Harper Row publishing – her arguments frequently amount to little more than “she reads less than me.”

When the film asks its characters to relate to one another, they deliver their lines with stilted irony. Because emotionally investing in anything is just too much to expect of this generation. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of disconnect, and but everything seems so wry and so obsessed with being cynical that it’s hard to connect with the film’s arc. After all, our interest in watching Frances try to develop relies on us caring for her. It feels like the film keeps everything at arm’s length, and there’s very little emotional honesty behind the sharp stingers and the biting dialogue.

Quite Frances...

Quite Frances…

It never feels entirely open with the audience. It always feels like it’s trying to hide behind some smug gag. It works to an extent – Frances Ha is delightfully and bitterly funny on occasion – but it means that the emotional pay-off doesn’t feel well-earned. When Frances suddenly tells a character she has been sniping at for the whole film that she likes him, we have no idea where that came from. What changed her mind? After all, she’s hardly seeing the guy at his best when she makes the admission. It just feels like it’s more important that Frances show something that can be identified as growth as the movie comes to a close.

It’s frustrating, because there is a lot to like in Frances Ha. It’s just hard to care about anything one way or the other.

2 Responses

  1. Good review Darren. There’s plenty to like here about Frances and what happens in her life, and that’s why I liked this flick a lot more than you did. It felt real and honest, as if I was watching Gerwig herself live life and move from residence to residence.

    • Thanks.

      Being honest, I liked a lot of it, but it just left me cold. I didn’t get that personal connection that a film like this needs in order to work. It did feel like it was supposed to be intimate – the meandering and personal conversation, the tight focus on the actors, the way it’s structured around Frances’ arc, even the snug aspect ratio – but I just found it guarded by all this wry irony and knowing wit.

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