Review by Ken Burke Frances Ha
A marvelously quirky story, told in retro black and white, about an aspiring dancer, her usually-devoted roommate, and her life which just never seems to achieve lift-off.
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews. This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.]
In the midst of the medley on what was the flip-side (that concept doesn’t mean much when you discuss CDs) of The Beatles’ 1969 Abbey Road album there’s a quick tune called “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” with the following lyrics:
“She said she’d always been a dancer
She worked at 15 clubs a day
And though she thought I knew the answer
Well I knew what I could not say…”
(take a listen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3cxkYu4NyA to the song
or the entire 16:31 medley is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pM3PVzDUCY
or the entire 47:33 album is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8y5kdiv0oY)
This could easily describe the life and “reflective attitudes” (to which we might say “Ha! Ha!” in that cruelly-condescending Stanley Kowalski tone if we were awful enough to be mean to one of the most charming characters you’ll ever meet on screen) of the protagonist of Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, Frances (Greta Gerwig, co-screenwriter with Baumbach)—we’ll get more clarity on the full title of the film as we go along here. Frances is a struggling dancer, apprenticing with a Manhattan company but barely able to afford the rent on her Brooklyn apartment which she shares with her eternal BFF from her somewhat-recently-completed college days, Sophie (Mickey Sumner—Sting’s daughter, although that has nothing beyond trivia value to do with her role here). Frances is lovable, determined, passionately devoted to her assumed-life-partner-in-all-things-except-romantic-love, Sophie (“We’re like a lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex anymore,” Frances opines about their relationship), and not getting very far very fast with her career or personal life (“Un-dateable,” friend Benji [Michael Zegen] constantly “reassures” her). To say that this film is charming is to say that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is melodic or that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescos are colorful (which they are; if you’ve never seen the real thing or reproductions since the 1980-1994 restoration project, take a look at http://www.wga.hu/tours/sistina/index1. html). Frances Ha is mesmerizing in its charm, with a title character who’s so unique, so marvelously flawed, so determined to find some lemonade in the orchard of lemons that life seems to offer her that you feel you could comfortably spend a full 6-episode-Star-Wars-marathon-length-day in the theatre with her and not feel she’s overstayed her welcome (because, even as individual as she is, she’ll never pull a Jar Jar Binks moment on you), although the film’s actual running time of a mere 86 min. makes for a delightfully quick encounter of the best kind (that’s not what I had in mind, you pervert) where we get a pleasant dose of Frances, rather than an overdose.
When we first meet Frances (after a brief opening montage of scenes of her and Sophie) she’s in the process of what will become the breakup with her boyfriend, Dan (Michael Esper), when his suggestion that they move in together deteriorates into a clumsy refusal on her part because she doesn’t want to leave Sophie stuck with the lease and the need to find a new roommate (a constant problem for those who live in larger cities where specific-length leases are the norm rather than the month-by-month apartment arrangements that allow a lot more flexibility of lifestyle change; keep that in mind when you go off to metropolitan meccas to find your fortune but then get sidetracked because you find other opportunities instead—unfortunately, life and love don’t often run parallel, a situation that Frances could choreograph a dance to). Ironically, Sophie then pushes the boundaries of their “eternal” connection by making the same decision herself, so as to snag a spot in her long-dreamed-of Tribeca (“Triangle below Canal Street” neighborhood in lower Manhattan, in case you need to know that) location, leaving Frances to her own devices until an opening comes at the place in Chinatown shared by Benji and Lev (Adam Driver). While this arrangement keeps Frances off of the streets it proves a bit frustrating as both Benji and Frances remain “un-dateable” while Lev keeps them awake from the noise of his sexual conquests with a constant stream of changing partners. That’s a mere discomfort, though, compared to the reality that Frances needs extra work through her dance company (she teaches classes to kids) in order to even pay her rent, but when that fails to materialize she’s seeing her future get desperate, even at the ripe young age of 27. (Don’t ever get me started on how nice it would be to magically flow back to that time—well, for me, not to that actual year of 1974 [at least my mortal enemy, President Richard Nixon, resigned then, but there’s not much else from that era of disco and divorce; again, I refer to me on the divorce front, although the better second marriage with the dazzling Nina Kindblad would finally arrive after a mere 12-year wait]—more precisely, just to be that age again, if I could keep my present relationship, savings, and life-experience learned the usual hard way rather than just be the horny, almost broke, naïve grad student I was in 1974, but, as countless fantasy tales of such Dorian Gray-related adventures have shown, it wouldn’t work out well anyway so I’ll just have to remember what it feels like for Frances to think that your life has already foundered even before you’ve begun to approach the first years of middle-age, discomforting as the 30 mark is even when your professional and financial situations may seem stable.)
Poor Frances just keeps hitting the rocks, no matter what she tries to do in a more positive vein throughout the film. Her attempted celebratory dinner with Lev (far right in this photo, Benji in the middle) after receiving a much-needed tax refund (In the shape she’s in she had to pay to begin with? She must have listed her address as the Tea Party Arms.) goes awry when her credit card is declined so she has to hunt all over the area to finally find an ATM machine while he waits somewhat-patiently back at the restaurant; despite her hopes for holiday-season work in a Christmas dance revue she gets none so she heads back to Sacramento for the holidays where she squabbles with her parents and family friends; after she returns to NYC to live temporarily with a member of her dance company, in an attempt to show her acquaintances that she still has up-and-coming cachet, she makes charges she can’t afford to pay on a new credit card to spend a weekend in Paris only to sleep through much of her limited time and fail to make contact with an old college friend there until she’s on her way to the airport’s departure terminal; finally she ends up back at her old college (not specified; maybe Vassar, maybe not) up the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie, NY where she takes a menial job as a dorm Resident Assistant (not that she’s the most available or comforting voice when a student needs her emotional support but she does make an effort), which also includes being a wine pourer at swanky institutional events. There she meets up again with Sophie who had moved away to Tokyo with off-again-on-again flame Patch (Patrick Heusinger) but was back (with him) at the alma mater for a high-roller auction; Sophie admits that she’s tired of Japan, doesn’t want to get engaged to Patch, and desperately misses Frances, all of which seems to inspire our beleaguered protagonist to get back to NYC, force herself to choreograph a modern dance number that will be performed to public acceptance by her old troupe, find herself stable enough to rent her own apartment, and seemingly begin a nice, long-overdue romance with Benji (Sophie and Patch seem to be there in support as well—at least I think it was him that we see quickly in a short shot—but this film is intentionally limited on clear explication of much of anything, preferring instead to offer what Paul Simon cleverly called “incidents and accidents” [from “You Can Call Me Al” on his magnificent 1986 Graceland album (which also played into the ongoing success of marriage with Nina, but that’s a long story best saved for another time]; take a listen if you like at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0gUpzFPxk4, a brilliant music video where Simon does little except instrumental backup while Chevy Chase perfectly lip-syncs the lyrics in a seeming single shot throughout the song, one of the most simple-yet-effective-performances of this type that I’ve ever seen]).
Frances Ha has an intentional sense of 1960s French New Wave low-key spontaneity to its scenes, dialogue, and plot movements (along with the retro black and white cinematography there’s even use of soundtrack music from François Truffaut’s 1959 classic, The 400 Blows, while Frances is on her montage-ATM-odyssey) so that scenes have an unscripted quality to them, the characters are unpredictable but basically likeable, and Frances, an attractive-but-not-conventionally-beautiful-woman, dutiful-but-not-gifted-dancer, charms us with her optimism even in the face of constant personal shortcomings (she’s even perceived by many around her as not being emotionally in sync with her supposed-to-be-adult-by-now 27 chronological years). We want her to succeed, which she seemingly does (the ending is more rushed than any of the previous quickly-changing-and-edited-scenes so that we get a good feel for her future more so than its confirmed success is explained to us); however, the allusions to the quirky style of the first of many mid-20th-century New Waves just reminds us of how conventional this purposefully-offbeat character study is when we already have such a rich heritage going back to Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960), Jules and Jim (Truffaut, 1962), etc. to draw on. I’m not saying that Baumbach can’t conjure up his own New Wave facsimile (it was too wonderful a period in filmmaking not to pay homage to through contemporary revivals, even as Woody Allen did with Deconstructing Harry ), but given the heritage that this film is intended to evoke I just can’t say that it does much more than that, despite the charming presence of Frances and Sophie especially, with their bond that can’t be duplicated (just as Frances tries to recreate the play fights that we saw between her and Sophie early on [as referenced in the second photo above] with Rachel, her later dance company roommate, but with a totally disastrous result, just as with Alvy Singer having a flat recreation of his previous lobster calamity with Annie as he’s attempting to date someone else after their breakup in Woody Allen’s 1977 masterpiece, Annie Hall [still very high on my all-time favorites list]). So as not to overdo the Frances-Sophie connection we slowly lose their interaction, first when Sophie moves to Tribeca, then to Japan, catching Frances off-guard and with minimal contact after each move; this leaves Frances more vulnerable, more genuinely unsure of what direction to even attempt as her life stagnates, all of which is engaging to watch but none of which really takes us to a higher cinematic plateau once we’ve become accustomed to the recurring honestly of presentation being employed here.
I enjoyed Frances Ha a lot, especially the accessibility that I felt into the limited-reality-but-higher-aspirational-lives of Frances and Sophie, but once I got comfortable with the unpredictability of where this looking-for-life-in-too-many-of-the-wrong-places-still-maturing-girl-story was unfolding, I don’t feel that I got much more than what I came to understand within the first 15 minutes or so (despite the consistently effective acting and consistently-seeming-spontaneous-mood throughout) as the film progressed into just more of the same of Frances’ trials and errors. It’s all very charming, certainly something I’d recommend over most of the high-volume, popcorn-chomping fare that’s dominating the release schedule as we roll into summer blockbuster season, but I just don’t think that Francis Ha (by the way, the title refers to her printing her name on a slip of paper to put into the mailbox slot for her new apartment; she can’t fit “Haliday” in the short space allowed so rather than rewrite it in smaller letters she just folds the paper so that her name to the world is now “Frances Ha,” keeping with her devil-may-care-attitude toward whatever challenges confront her in the big city and in her maturing years) gets enough beyond its initial attraction to rate any higher than 3 ½ stars of 5 (with the understanding that it takes the likes of The 400 Blows, Breathless, and Annie Hall to ever reach my lofty realm of 5). I recommend the deliciously-unorthodox Frances Ha, but not as something that takes you to new cinematic heights and sustains such lofty achievements, rather as an enjoyable character study of some truly viable screen presences that you wouldn’t mind seeing again in a few years, in the manner that Richard Linklater’s Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) keep popping up every few years to update us on their evolving entanglement (with the latest episode, Before Midnight soon to be released and then reviewed here). While you’re waiting for any of these folks to reappear, though, you might want to content yourself with my musical tribute to Frances Ha, a song seemingly (although there are all sorts of interpretations out there to ponder) about love hitting obstacles and possibly overcoming them rather than being crushed by the intrangence of past expectations, as was a once mighty ancient empire as alluded to in David Grey’s “Babylon” music video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jmK-YWSJ8Eg (a 3:28 version originally on the 1998 White Ladder album), but you might also enjoy a longer 8:22 live version at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOI4F3fGbzk preceded by some chatter on how the song came about that sounds like a scene right out of Frances Ha (and it's great to hear such a beautiful song done with just 3 acoustic guitars; further, this pairing reflects the 2000 American re-release of the album which also includes a concluding acoustic version of this mesmerizing song). So, "Let go in your heart, let go your head" (just like Frances and Sophie) until I see you again next week.
If you’d like to know more about Frances Ha here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y08JRewL29I (32:30 interview with director/co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach, actor/co-writer Greta Gerwig, and actor Mickey Sumner from the 50th New York Film Festival)
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P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.