Watching this for the first time during university was truly revolutionary. Noah Baumbach’s film follows the titular character (played flawlessly by Greta Gerwig), a contemporary dancer who struggles to maintain a secure lifestyle in New York after her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) moves out of their apartment. Filmed in black and white, stripping back the New York background in a way that feels like an homage to Woody Allen’s Manhatten, Frances Ha is witty and heartbreaking while creating a brilliantly developed character who feels real and leaves you thinking long after the credits roll. Directed by Baumbach and co-written by him and Gerwig, Frances Ha has earned its place among the great indie films of the 21st century for its mix of quick wit and improvisation. Following Frances and told from her perspective, Frances Ha is a seemingly simple film in that it doesn’t explore a specific plot but it demonstrates the struggle young people have and what they will do in order to achieve their dreams.
Frances Halladay is enigmatic and fiery. She has an array of bad habits such as smoking and bad money management but she has a passion for life and sees the magic in the everyday. This love for life is magnetic and we begin to see New York from Frances’ perspective. Her New York is an entirely different place. She has plenty of struggles but somehow she is able to bounce back and flit from place to place knowing that everything will figure itself out in the end. Despite not having a “real” plot, the film sees Frances become reliant on herself. Her initial identity is completely tied to Sophie but when Sophie moves, Frances is forced to carve her own path. She’s one of my favourite characters in film with good reason. She’s quirky, doesn’t let go off her dreams and importantly, doesn’t allow a man to dictate or motivate any action unless she wants it to. For all her flaws, Frances brings her strength subtly and isn’t aware of her own power.
Frances Ha allows a deeper focus on characters rather than plot. The natural approach the actors bring mean that the audience forgets that they are watching a film rather than a documentary. Mainly set and filmed in New York, there are also scenes that take us to Sacramento and Paris. No matter where Frances goes, she doesn’t change and the world remains just as black and white as ever. We see Frances at a turning point in her life. At 27 years old she is starting to lose a grip on her dream as a dancer and begins to understand that she will have to compromise to maintain security. Because it’s not plot driven, it feels as though the audience has stepped into this moment in her life and that there will be a big breakthrough for her but Baumbach is a grounded visualist brings a more realistic approach and finds a more believable solution.
I have touched on the cinematography before but it deserves its own observation. Baumbach’s New York feels like it doesn’t belong in a specific time or place. The decision to film in black and white definitely contributes to it but also Frances’ ability to largely avoid modern culture and do her own thing gives the film a detachment and allows it to become immersed in its own universe. The decision to make it black and white added a quirky aesthetic to the film and made it a talking point but ultimately, it is a film that relies heavily on its actors and Gerwig in particular who is in the majority of the film. Inspired by the French New Wave, the film is minimalist and brings a European style to the US. Although it doesn’t bring whistles and bells, it is contrasted by Frances’ extroverted personality. Without Baumbach or Gerwig, Frances Ha would not be the film it is and would not be the indie success that it is.
There is something that continuously draws me in with Frances Ha. Every time I watch it I notice something new whether it is a particular performance, the cinematography or the writing. It’s a film that maintains its topics and place in the mumblecore movement. As both Gerwig and Baumbach’s careers have skyrocketed to new heights with both releasing two of the best films of the year with Little Women and Marriage Story respectively, it’ll be great to see them collaborate again. Their 2015 film Mistress America which was their last collaboration was also a fun watch but for me, it is Frances Ha that remains my favourite. It’s a film that is strongly feminist and feels relatable as someone who aspires to make a living in the creative industry.
What do you think of Frances Ha? Let me know in the comments below!