Despite superficial similarities to Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls, Frances Ha is resolutely its own film: light without being lightweight, fun but never simply frothy, gentle with a genuine spikiness. It’s a romance about friendship. That is, it brings the force and longing of a love story to the platonic relationship between two Brooklyn flatmates in their late twenties: Frances (Greta Gerwig), a budding dancer, and Sophie (Mickey Sumner), who is in publishing.
As with the best double acts, their physical differences lend them a comic frisson. Frances’s effervescence is belied by her sleepy eyelids, heavy jaw and clattering limbs; Sophie is pinched and wiry. But curled up like cats on adjacent window ledges or playfighting like excitable puppies in the park, they are a matching set.
Their friends describe them as “like a lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex any more”. They are invoked by others as a benchmark: one hipster friend, Lev (Adam Driver), describes Benji (Michael Zegen), his own best chum, as “my Sophie”. The city is peppered with these marriages-that-aren’t. Lev calls out, “Honey, I’m home!” when he returns to the apartment he and Benji share. Meanwhile, Benji, who has a joshing rapport with Frances, introduces her to his girlfriend by saying: “Frances and I used to be married.” (They didn’t.)
Frances’s take on her relationship with Sophie is: “We’re the same person with different hair.” The film takes their intimacy for granted and doesn’t try to flog it to us. When Sophie mentions chidingly “the time you made a cake”, we may prime ourselves to hear the hilarious baking anecdote but it doesn’t come. Why would it? Both of them know what happened. There’s no need for a recap.
When their bond is jeopardised, it’s as unsettling as the schism in any screen couple, even if the danger comes not from a carnal interloper but the lure of moving to a swankier neighbourhood. (Those three syllables – “Tribeca” – have the potency of magic beans in a fairy tale.) Frances’s motion and optimism drive the film in the absence of an actual plot; it’s more an extended flat hunt. She’s always being moved on and not only from apartments. She can’t stop for a cigarette, use a communal computer terminal or take a dance class without being shooed away.
Detours to Paris and Sacramento, California, appear to have been filleted lovingly from many hours of footage. The film is short but it also has a looseness to it. There have been plenty of female buddy movies before, though usually the friendship must be tested in the crucible of high drama, whether modest (My Summer of Love, Heavenly Creatures) or over-scaled (Beaches, Thelma & Louise). There are no forced crises here. The one speech that could be described as a mission statement, concerning “the secret dimension” available to intimates, is delivered by Gerwig in the same style in which she runs: a mad dash punctuated by leaps and pratfalls.
Frances Ha is shot by Sam Levy in black and white, with elements of both the crisp and the crumpled. (One advantage of monochrome is that each crease or fold in an unmade bed suggests a vivid pencil stroke.) That stylistic choice aligns the film with Woody Allen’s Manhattan but also with the French new wave, to which there are copious references (notably the perky music of the late Georges Delerue, whose hundreds of scores include films by Truffaut and Godard, as well as an earlier US homage to that period, Paul Mazursky’s 1980 film Willie & Phil).
The allusions spread into French cinema in general. A glimpsed poster for Truffaut’s 1976 comedy Small Change suggests an inspiration for the picture’s skit-like structure. Frances’s celebratory sprint through Manhattan, her speeding steps giving way gradually to outright pirouettes, is a remake of an identical set piece in Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang (1986), only with the camera moving in the opposite direction. There’s even the same jerking, pounding song on the soundtrack: David Bowie’s “Modern Love”. The French new wave despatched love letters to the Hollywood of the 1940s. US film-makers reciprocated in the 1960s and 1970s. Frances Ha is merely keeping up this tradition of transatlantic correspondence SWALK.
Noah Baumbach co-wrote Frances Ha with Gerwig, his off-screen partner, and together they have devised situations that exploit that faintly galumphing gait which makes her resemble a nerdy swan. (Benji accuses Frances of having “a weird man-walk”.) The pair first worked together on Baumbach’s Greenberg, one of the finest US films of the past decade, in which Ben Stiller played a manic depressive liable to be paralysed with anger at any moment by some perceived slight. The new movie is the happy flip side to Greenberg. No matter what knock-backs or put-downs Frances receives, she takes it in her gangling stride; it’s water off a nerdy swan’s back. Frances is only adequate as a dancer but her enthusiasm bridges the gap between aspiration and ability. She deserves an A for effort. The film gets one for attainment.