06 June 2013

THE ONLY LIVING GIRL IN NEW YORK

Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha is a love-letter to his girlfriend, indie darling Greta Gerwig, and in this respect it is easy to admire it: for Gerwig is a natural-born movie star, and though we've had evidence of that before, there hasn't yet been a film so carefully designed in so many details to showcase the actress's talent and visual magnetism. It is also a love-letter to the fumbling yearning of twentysomething creative class whites in New York City, and though it is plainly the case that different viewers will have a different response to this, and find a different balance between how much Gerwig's skill and charm offset or accentuate the culture being depicted, I an only report my own response. To wit, I spent the first third of the movie wishing I could set myself on fire, if that would make it end faster.

The quick 'n dirty version of the story: Frances (Gerwig) is living a perfectly satisfying life of bohemian poverty, working as apprentice to a contemporary dance company, and living with her all-time best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), who is herself trying to break into publishing. Life couldn't be more pleasantly non-challenging for Frances, but then Sophie drops the bombshell: she's going to move in with her boyfriend, Patch (Patrick Heusinger), of whom Frances completely disapproves, and coming right on the heels of Frances's own relationship coming to an apparently overdue close, this leaves the 27-year-old adrift and alone. The movie charts her quest over the next several months to find a new social support group, find a place to live, and figure out what she's doing now that she's just about to the point where it's no longer charming to be absolutely non-committal about one's future plans. At a certain point, she returns home, and the movie starts to take on a much clearer shape, but it's still mostly loose and observational and as in-the-moment as its protagonist.

Some parts of this work, some do not, and about some I remain undecided, but this much is easy to say: the huge problem with Frances Ha is that it's about generally unlikable, self-indulgent people who conflate "choosing to borrow the smallest amount of money from their rich parents" with "being poor", while pursuing aggressively non-commercial artistic interests. This is not a new genre of film, having to some degree dominated "serious" American indie films in the last ten years or thereabouts (the prototypical film of the form, Funny Ha Ha, debuted in 2002 but wasn't widely seen until 2005), and Gerwig herself was first thrust to prominence as the title character in Hannah Takes the Stairs, directed by the artistically barren Joe Swanberg. Taken as an exemplar of the style, Frances Ha is a massive improvement on almost all of the films that used to be lumped together in the so-called "Mumblecore" movement: Baumbach knows where to position a camera to make the activity within it seem organic and lively, rather than pin it down like an amateur entomologist crushing a bug between two glass slides. When he and cinematographer Sam Levy film the whole thing in black-and-white, it is quite evident that they're doing it for particular reasons (to increase the abstract romanticism of the piece, chiefly; there's a hell of a lot of Manhattan in the film's visual DNA), and not just because it was done in a film they admire. When the film overtly cribs from the style and storytelling devices of the French New Wave, it's not out of some bland, "I like the New Wave" impulse, but because that's an extremely useful touchstone for a story about insular young people (it does, however, hurt the film that its best moment is an out-of-nowhere direct copy of a scene from the much better neo-New Wave film Mauvais sang).

So, what I'm saying isn't that the film doesn't work. I'm saying that it works, sometimes very well, in service to a story that had no reason to be told. The particular strata of humanity being explored here has been more fully documented in cinema, relative to its actual merits or points of interest, than any other culture of the 20th and 21st Centuries, and other than being well-made, Frances Ha adds virtually nothing to our collective understanding of New York hipsters that hasn't been gone over, and over, and over. It's agonising, in a certain way, because this isn't the first time that Baumbach has set his sights on post-collegiate drifters who'd rather live in their heads than deal with the world: his debut, Kicking and Screaming, addressed the exact same kind of young people, when Baumbach himself was in his mid-20s, and unlike Frances Ha, that film was sharply critical of its characters (though not as savage in its criticism as Baumbach's films would become later on). The Baumbach who is dating Gerwig is a mellower Baumbach, a nicer Baumbach, a Baumbach who can poke a bit of fun at his characters' pretensions, but refuses to pull the trigger on actually calling them out for it. At one point, Frances, the closest person in the film to legitimately being broke, is asked by another character if she understands that she's not really poor, a moment that I've been waiting for in any of these Mumblecore or Mumblecore-adjecent movies since they started, and no sooner than the question is raised, it evaporates away. Baumbach and Gerwig seem dimly aware that there's something fundamentally wrong with the navel-gazing cluelessness of the people they're putting onscreen, but not something definite enough to actually draw it out of the lowest level of subtext, and there really aren't any characters in the film's litany of ennui-soaked post-adolescents who drift in and out of Frances's life that aren't presented as basically likable, though their likability hinges entirely on the viewer's willingness to concede that yes, aspiring artists in Brooklyn probably are the most interesting possible stand-ins for their entire generation. The film's buzzy reception indicates that a great many viewers even believe that; privately, I hold something extremely close to the exact opposite of that viewpoint, and spending time among the uniformly unpleasant cast of Frances Ha was an endless frustration.

The one thing that manages to hoist the film over into being watchable - though by God, it is not by much - is Gerwig's perfectly amazing performance (that, and a Rohmer-ish structure in which each movement of the story is named for the address Frances then resides at). Frances might be a human being that I'd do anything to avoid meeting in real life, but as a movie character, given breath by Gerwig, she's nothing shy of fantastic: the actress's peerless comfort in her own skin and ability to plunge herself in the most awkward, self-unaware moments without feeling like she's using the moment as an acting exercise brings Frances to life like few movie characters, in both charming and sometimes intensely itchy ways. Impressively, the actress both problematises the script's somewhat reductive view of Frances - the performance is considerably more critical of the character than the writing or directing are - while also making the best argument for the appealing free-spirited elements that the writing keeps promising is there, but wouldn't necessarily land without an immeasurably appealing actress portraying her. Gerwig, beyond a doubt, is immeasurably appealing, and Frances Ha is tailor-made to showcase her gifts better than anything she's ever been in; I deeply wish that the actress and the character were situated in a scenario that had anything more interesting to do with her than show her off, but maybe next time.

6/10

6 comments:

hayley said...

The weirdest thing about this is that Greta Gerwig already starred as a struggling, aimless, twenty-something Manhattanite the year before in "Lola Versus."

So when I heard about this film, I almost did a double take. Again? And with Lena Dunham's work in the past year, who could possibly think we need more of this demographic in any medium.

franklinshepard said...

This movie is so much better than Lola Versus, it's not even funny.

I quite liked it myself, but I am 28 and live in Washington Heights and am an artistic type. And I don't know, I thought the movie was pretty hard on Frances. I loved her, I was rooting for her, but I didn't let her off the hook for any of her behavior, and I don't think the movie did either.

Jordan Wellin said...

I'm sorry, but I just hate when critics bash on a film for having unlikable characters. People are unlikable. We deal with clueless, ignorant people like Frances and her friends every day. God forbid we should see a film in which they don't realize how clueless they are. I believe this is very much Baumbach's and Gerwig's point to which they reference in their interview with Terry Gross. I'll never be able to understand people who hate on Rachel Getting Married, Girls, et. al for having rich, unlovable characters. That's what many humans are. And those films and shows interest me far more than any of the sentimental crap we get from Hollywood.

WBTN said...

@Jordan
What I take away from this review - and from many of Tim's other reviews - is not that he's bashing on the movie for having unlikable people, but bashing on the movie for how it represents unlikable people (and is bashing really correct? It's still on the positive side of 6). His comparison to Kicking and Screaming directly addresses this, and I know what he means; if a film can't make the audience forget how unbearable its characters are, or at least hold the characters' feet to the fire, then he has a perfect reason for finding it bad or at least unpleasant in a way that it shouldn't have to be.

Tim said...

I mean something even a little different than that: I think that the movie presents people that it doesn't entire perceive as unlikable. It definitely acknowledges that they have little but not overriding personality flaws, but the idea that New York hipsters, as a class, have some problematic characteristics is literally nowhere on the film's radar.

Whereas K&S, though it's ultimately forgiving of its characters, definitely understands that a reasonable person might find them totally devoid of redeeming qualities.

Tim said...

But God, no, I don't dislike movies with unlikable characters at all. Very sorry if that was the implication of this review.