Every once in a while there comes along an enchanted occasion where one’s experience of a film dovetails so serendipitously with the circumstances of seeing it (where one is and how one is feeling at that precise time) that not only are receptiveness and susceptibility heightened, but it becomes difficult to do justice to that experience without also talking about those personal circumstances.
This weekend, I saw the beautiful Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012) whilst down in London visiting friends whom I no longer see as much as I would like, and (for the most part) as much as I saw them when I was working towards a PhD in film studies five to eight years ago. So I came to the film after a day spent taking tube journeys across London to meet people (people who sparkle!), chat to them, wander around with them, have drinks with them, and exchange or share pieces of culture (I have returned home with a bag full of books and DVDs, and a notebook full of things to explore). My day was like stepping into that part of my past where I was surrounded by a wealth of friends with a huge thirst for culture and a desire to talk about it that was as constant and as natural as breathing. So when the evening came, although I didn’t yet know it, I had been primed for Frances Ha.
Frances, played by Greta Gerwig, is a single white female in her mid to late twenties, living in New York and insecurely employed as a dancer. She splits up with her boyfriend near the start of the film (at the point where he has laid down a deposit on a pair of cats and is asking her to move in with him). She lives in three different apartments over the film’s duration: first with her friend Sophie, then with two guys she meets at a party who happen to have a room going spare, and finally, alone. She also takes flights to visit her parents in Sacramento and to go to Paris for the weekend, and spends time in the dormitory of her old school while she works there for a brief spell.
When reviewers (or one’s friends!) try to give a sense of Frances Ha to those who haven’t seen it, Lena Dunham’s excellent television series Girls (HBO, 2012-) will often come up. The two projects have overlapping personnel and ostensibly similar subject matter. But in terms of sensibility, they are very different. Girls is a lot about sex, and is brilliantly raw, with a great deal of palpable pain and anxiety. Frances Ha has a very different orientation towards sex (we get the sense that it happens, but we don’t see much of it, and sexual tension neither drives the narrative nor is it a strong presence in many of the scenes), and a different pervading tone. Perhaps surprisingly, given Baumbach’s earlier work (of the films he directed I have only seen The Squid and The Whale, but Greenberg is now on its way…), no character is persistently satirised. We are also not given characters who keenly feel that the world is not recognising their worth. Frances does suffer repeated professional rejections across the course of the film, and we see and share her pain, but it is not the pain of a person who sees themself as an undiscovered genius.
The film is not edgy, but it is precise. An illuminating and in-depth profile of Baumbach and Gerwig in The New Yorker (one of those pieces of culture shared with me by a friend) reveals Baumbach as a writer-director who ‘expects actors to say the lines he wrote for them, and to say them again and again’. (A little later in the same piece: ‘Gerwig now finds it unnerving to do just five or so takes for another director: “I don’t know that we’ve actually thought about it enough.”‘) It is also revealed that a lot of post-production work was undertaken on the film’s black and white digital cinematography (with the help of Pascal Dangin, ‘a retoucher known as the “photo whisperer”‘). Apparently, an early draft of the film split it into five largely autonomous episodes in Frances’s life. To an extent, that structure remains, but the film is also given a thread, if not exactly a plot, by Frances’s relationship with Sophie.
The first phase of the film shows Frances and Sophie sharing their secret world. They rent an apartment together; they fall asleep on each other’s beds; they share jokes, language and rituals. Then (after Frances has refused to move in with her boyfriend because she wants to see out – and probably renew – her lease with Sophie), Sophie moves in with her boyfriend, gets engaged to him, and even moves to Japan. This gives us the fall-out phase of the film and the relationship. Frances gets angry with Sophie for failing to honour their former intimacy (in a brilliant phrase I can’t quite remember, she accuses her of acting like the two of them just got bagels together for lunch one time), gets sad when she hears from others about what Sophie is up to with others (this is presented less as possessiveness and more as the sense of missing out on moment of time that ought to have been shared), and embarrasses herself (or at least, makes us feel embarrassed), by trying to recreate that intimacy with an unwilling other (she tries to initiate her new friend in the ways of playfighting, and pushes her in the face; it does not go down well).
The film first demonstrates dramatically, and then articulates through dialogue, the way in which the friendships between people who possess independence but not yet responsibilities or security are sustained by deep, near-continuous rituals of intimacy, and that when these rituals come to an end, this can be difficult to deal with, at least at first. Towards the end of a dinner party scene in which Frances’s estrangement from Sophie and gloomy work prospects have caused her to act foolishly (but also, if the film has had its desired effect by this point, endearingly), there is a luminous long take in which Frances talks about the nature of such relationships. The moment she chooses as indicative is when two people are at a party, talking to other people, but then look across the room at one another, and share an understanding that does not require and in fact surpasses language.
Ian Parker, in his New Yorker profile, gets it right when he observes:
That late-twenties moment is still vivid to Baumbach, and part of the charm of “Frances Ha” has to do with the way it combines, in one character, a partial self-portrait of two writers [Baumbach and Gerwig], from two generations. If “Girls” describes the life of a certain kind of mid-twenties New Yorker, “Frances Ha” overlays that experience with memory, and the result is as romantic as a forgotten pop song that, years later, revives a place and a mood.
One pop song that the film uses repeatedly, and especially brilliantly, is Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’. (When I sat down to write this blog, I thought of opening it with a couple of lines from Springsteen’s ‘Bobby Jean’: ‘Now we went walking in the rain talking about the pain that from the world we hid/Now there ain’t nobody nowhere nohow gonna ever understand me the way you did.) Another source of the film’s music is Les 400 Coups (François Truffaut, 1959). Even before part of that score kicks in, brilliantly, as Frances is running through New York in search of an ATM, I was thinking that the French New Wave felt like a truer tonal point of reference for the film than either Mumblecore or Woody Allen (comparisons have been drawn with Manhattan, a film I probably ought to revisit). The New Wave in general, and Truffaut in particular. There is a similar romance, nostalgia, eye for the poetic and/in the everyday, retrospect, combination of looseness and precision, at work. (It would be interesting to sustainedly ‘compare and contrast’ Les 400 Coups and Frances Ha; two things that might be especially interesting to think through would be the mobility and the ages of each protagonist.)
Wittgenstein once said,
In teaching you philosophy I’m like a guide showing you how to find your way round London. I have to take you through the city from north to south, from east to west, from Euston to the embankment and from Piccadilly to the Marble Arch. After I have taken you many journeys through the city [sic], in all sorts of directions, we shall have passed through any given street a number of times – each time traversing the street as part of a different journey. At the end of this you will know London; you will be able to find your way about like a born Londoner.
It’s a quote I never tire of returning to, and I sometimes put it before students as a way of thinking about approaching criticism. You have to go on many ‘journeys’ through a film, and ideally not all of those journeys will be signposted by other people’s interpretations or by a given theoretical position. The thing that strikes me about the quote as I write now is the act of embarking on journeys in company; the relationship between journeys and friendship. The things that people do together are part of what friendship is, and memories of visiting a city will often be memories of doing certain things at certain times with certain people. Likewise with films. Of course, Frances Ha unfolded before me, in a ‘linear’ way, one might say, but my ways into, ways around, and subsequent journeys back through it are shaped by where I was in my life and who was with me (in person, or in memory) when I saw it.