Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Frances Ha

(Noah Baumbach, USA, 2013)

Seen by some as an elder statesman's correction to Mumblecore, Baumbach and Gerwig's movie is very much it's own beast.  Equal parts classical cinema and Nouvelle Vague, it paints a layer of freewheeling abandon over a sturdy, if squat, substructure of character study.

Working from a script they co-wrote, Gerwig and Baumbach take their formal cues from stumbling, gregarious, impulsive Frances, treating us to a brisk succession of (mostly) comic set pieces.  The best stuff effectively nails the heady stew of ambition, anxiety, and sentiment that exemplify the lives of New York based aspiring artists.  Careening between desire and ennui, between security and risk, gives Frances' life plenty of momentum, even if it's lacking in direction.

Gerwig, a performer of increasingly impressive dexterity and depth, has never been better.  It's easy to sense a personal proximity between the actress and the character, but I suspect that's a result of her skill.  Baumbach's presence here is marked by the absence of the spleen that's usually in abundance, leaving a lighter, more palatable expression of his wit.  There's no climactic meltdown, no truly antisocial misbehavior, from any of the characters (although there is some sloppy drunkenness.)  The film is perhaps most impressive in its elision of a plot that hinges upon the romantic stakes of the main character.  Frances is, as she and her friend often joke, "undatable."  And yet she's refreshingly unperturbed by this fact, as is the film, which finds plenty of story material not contingent upon romantic crises.

Instead, the true subject of the film is friendship.  Frances' connection to her best friend, Sophie, is shown to be tender and fragile.  Despite their intimacy, the incursions of romance, economic insecurity, and "lifestyle" seem everywhere to loom, threatening what both obviously cling to as a sense of stability and grounding in a fast-moving, uncertain world. 

Overall, the film's deliberate lightness can at times feel a bit thin.  Gerwig's character remains more on the side of sketch than of a portrait, and there is a tendency to rely on comedic shorthand, rather than careful evocation, to depict her.  While the breeziness is refreshing, especially to those of us familiar with Baumbach's usual stuff, there remains a strong undercurrent of sadness.   Neither of the filmmakers seem to quite know what to do with this, and it leaves the character of Frances in a kind of formal limbo.  She's treated as a hero, albeit a bit of a klutz.  But there are unexplored dimensions to her carelessness, both in it's reckless passion and in it's more childish fleeing from responsibility.  It's a minor bug for a very pleasing movie.