Noah Baumbach’s ode to mumblecore Frances Ha (2013) is a surprising film that will defy your expectations. Frances Halliday (Greta Gerwig) is your typical ‘young modern person’ trying to find her way in life. After an awkward break-up, Frances’ living situation becomes increasingly complicated, as does the search for her own life’s purpose. We follow her as she makes mistakes and seeks solutions to her many dilemmas.
I went into this film with a fairly cynical mindset. “This will just be one of those upper middle class white person angst stories,” my brain said. “Get ready for another episode of Girls.“. Well, brain, you were actually kind of wrong. Normally this type of narrative really frustrates me, but I really enjoyed Frances Ha. Even though there were some problems with the film, its story was told in an intelligent and engaging way.
The story is structured in terms of Frances’ numerous addresses as she flits between apartment to apartment. When you’re in the midst of watching the film, there doesn’t seem to be any sort of straightforward storyline as Frances moves from place to place. However, after you finish watching the film, the story and themes of the film clearly fall into place. It’s one of those films that is bettered by reflection after watching it.
The beginning of Frances Ha introduces the characters in a funny and playful way. We see Frances and her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) gallivanting about the city, having play-fights in the park, discussing literature, drinking coffee, going to sleep in the same bed. They’re a couple of young best friends having crazy adventures and shenanigans, with a mischievous spirit that seems reminiscent of Chytilová’s Daisies (1966). This makes their eventual disagreements even more heartbreaking.
The dialogue is snappy and is peppered with witty insights into the life that Frances and her friends lead, poking fun at both the characters, the situation they’re in, and the story itself. For example, one particular character is definitely speaking for the viewers when he says to Frances, “You aren’t poor. There are real poor people, you aren’t one of them. … That’s offensive to actual poor people”. The film is quite self-referential at points, and this can be equal parts smart and insufferable.
I really loved the use of music in Frances Ha. The score is clearly inspired by Woody Allen and French New Wave films, and is used magnificently throughout. Dreamy, romantic music is used to show the soulmate-style relationship that Frances and Sophie have, and this music is used exclusively when they connect and engage with one another on a deep level. The triumphant music that blasts when Frances opens up a letter to reveal a tax return, and the frenetic music that accompanies her frantic search for an ATM machine were a couple of my favourites as well.
The use of pop music was also excellent. Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s a Winner” was the perfect accompaniment to Frances’ spontaneous weekend trip to Paris, reflecting her own satisfaction at ‘travelling abroad’, and also being an ironic comment on the fact that she decided to take the trip after being sent a credit card in the mail. She isn’t that much of a winner after all. The film also uses David Bowie’s “Modern Love” to great effect.
However, the acting in this film is slightly patchy. I haven’t seen any of Greta Gerwig’s other work so I’m not sure if this is her signature acting style or not, but at times her delivery of lines was unconvincing and amateur-sounding. I was considering this earlier, and I had a thought. What’s the difference between adorable hipster awkwardness and poor acting? It could have been either of the two at work here. I just can’t tell anymore.
Also, where was the need to shoot the film in black and white? Baumbach is clearly inspired by genius filmmakers like Woody Allen and the greats of the French New Wave in this choice, but rather than using the lack of colour to his advantage, it just has the effect of making the film look pretentious. He didn’t do anything interesting with the light in this film to justify the choice to film in black and white, and there was plenty of opportunity to do so. If this had been filmed in colour, there could have been some really interesting colour symbolism to explore. But I’m not going to re-write Baumbach’s film for him!
Ultimately, it’s easy to write this film off and disregard it as one of those “millennials don’t know how to live their life and are so irresponsible as a result” films. But there are deeper themes at play in Frances Ha. Like many people her age, Frances has goals and motivations for herself, but due to a variety of reasons, she isn’t able to reach them. Frances aims to be more than an apprentice dancer in her company; she wants to be a lead dancer, she wants to go on tour, she wants to choreograph her own work. There are all these things she wants to do, if only she had the opportunity to do them. This is a really common experience among young people today who have the curse of being over-qualified and under-experienced. As Frances’ friends are “getting it together” and succeeding in their day jobs, Frances wants more. This film is engaging and quirky, and despite its problems, I’d definitely recommend it as a casual weekend watch.
Watch the trailer here.
Good review Anna. Surprisingly, it’s one of Baumbach’s most cheerful and self-assuring movies he’s ever made, while also still not forgetting how life truly can suck at times. But in the end, it somehow gets better.
Thanks! I’m interested to see his other films. I loved how at the end she was still making mistakes, but she was in a much better place. It’s a pretty realistic film ending!
I will answer your question by saying I think Gerwig’s lines are intentionally delivered awkwardly, almost amateurishly. She does it to illustrate Frances’ social dysfunction. In my opinion Gerwig’s is one of the five best performances by a leading female on 2013. I think she’s better than Bullock, amongst others.
But I do not necessarily love the movie en masse more than you do. I gave it a B-
That’s an interesting point! I think I might give it a re-watch with that in mind and see if it changes my perception of the film/her performance.
I enjoyed this film more than you did and cried at the end. I think what Dan was saying rings true especially where the ending is concerned. After i watched it I did have reservations over it, but whist i was watching it it was great. Especially considering the caliber of US film released this year. Blue Jasmine and Blue is the warmest color are better and I consider all three of them to be chick flicks, then again so is Spring breakers. Frances Ha is certainly one of the best films released in 2013 in my opinion. 🙂
Aw! I didn’t cry at the end but I was really happy that Frances got it together. I don’t know if I’d call this one a chick flick even though it’s female-centric… I think both men and women can relate to Frances. Then again, I universally hate standard chick flicks so maybe I’m just resistant to the category. If I’d watched this in 2013, I definitely would have included it in a list of some sort! “Most surprising film of 2013”, maybe.
It was hilarious that the entire film was a complete homage to “french new wave cinema”, the Blue is the warmest color wo cannes nd Adele and greta were on the awards route together. So there was a proper french film and there was one that tried to be a french one. Greta was so jealous that her thunder was stolen.
Great review Anna, I know where you’re coming from with the acting style of Gerwig here. She does come off a little awkward and amateurish (as a film actress, that is, not her character). But as James said, I strongly believe these were techniques she employed to convince us of how dysfunctional her decision-making side of her brain could be.
Thanks Tom! Yeah, I think that’s a really interesting idea. I never considered it because I was too distracted by the fact that the acting was bad to think that there was a reason behind it, if that even makes sense! I’m thinking of giving the film a re-watch to see if it changes how I feel about the film as a whole.
I’ve not seen this yet. I like Baumbach and Gerwig though so hope to get round to it soon! Nice one Anna!
Thanks Tom! It’s definitely worth a watch!
Love this movie! Glad you liked it more than you expected. I totally agree with the Woody Allen/French New Wave aspect, that’s something that immediately jumped at me when I saw the film. It also feels like a Criterion film, you know what I mean? It’s just that artsy feeling I can’t describe it, but I was definitely a fan of Frances Ha!
haha it is a criterion film 😀
It really does feel like a Criterion film! I think the black and white helps a lot! 🙂
True! Yeah, that must be it.
I personally a fan of Frances Ha. I think it’s mostly because i found the story so relatable.
About the black and white of Frances Ha it was shot on Canon 5D and he made it in black and white to make it feel like a first film as well as an ode to film-making. I personally love the choice because mumblecore usually shot in those sundance-type colors that are easily distracting, i just felt the emotions in Frances Ha are more impactful because it was distraction free.
Oh yeah, I think any young person post-university would definitely relate to Frances! I know I did for sure. Good point about the black and white. The more I reflect on this film, the more I like it.
I found this movie to be pretty bad. Frances is extremely unlikeable and it doesn’t quite seem she’s trying to “find herself” as much as it seems she’s trying to avoid growing up in every possible way. Also, the movie is extremely pretentious and a wannabe Godard. I can’t believe it’s a Criterion Collection film 😦
I was pretty surprised that it made it to the Criterion Collection as well! Then again, if Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture can make it to the list, why not let all the films about New York identity-seeking twenty-somethings in. There’s a very thin line between being inspired by amazing filmmakers like Godard and Allen, and being a bit of a ripoff. I think this one was very, very carefully walking that line.
Ok well I really liked Greta Gerwig in the under-appreciated movie “Greenberg,” so perhaps I will give this a chance. B&W filmmaking does tend to annoy me, though, especially if it’s purposeless as you’ve described! We’re living in an oversaturated world in many ways, not one void of color…
I’m going to look into seeing Greenberg, sounds like a good one! Yeah, I get frustrated with the seemingly unnecessary use of black and white as well because it comes off as trying a bit too hard. Especially with this one borrowing so much from French New Wave, they could have done some amazing tricks to justify the B&W, but they didn’t!
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