Frances Ha: Fun but never frothy, light but not lightweight

Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig's Manhattan-esque comedy, shot entirely in black and white, brings the force and intimacy of a love story to bear on the relationship between two Brooklyn-based flatmates.

Frances Ha (15)
dir: Noah Baumbach
 
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. 

 

Mickey Sumner and Greta Gerwig: married-but-not in Frances Ha.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Beautiful and the damned: a spellbinding oral history of Hollywood

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein follows a specific tribe of people: the beautiful.

One day in LA, the showbiz tycoon David Geffen drove by the house that had belonged to Jack Warner, the co-founder of Warner Brothers. The gates were open, so he went in. “It was so grand and so Hollywood . . . It was an homage to an idea about the way people lived in Hollywood. I got caught up in the whole gestalt and I bought it.” Geffen then marvels that he paid $47m for the homage, while Jack had sold his whole studio for just $38m in 1956. You have to have a sense of irony.

From around 1920 there was a tribe in southern California, sometimes known as “the beautiful people”. In many cases, they were technical beauties (they appeared in dreamlets known as movies or had their photographs in magazines made of heavy, perfumed pages). Yet the true beauty talked about was a spiritual aspiration – a quest for romantic nobility, fragile elegance, or serene madness – that might offset the inner derangement, selfishness and comic vulgarity that so threatened their longing for godless class, or inscrutability. They lived within the frantic church known as Hollywood, a fierce cult or early form of terrorism (it hired intimidators, all of them called Oscar) that cherished the hopeless grail of beauty and sacrificed many lives in its pursuit.

Jean Stein is one of them; she admits as much in West of Eden, which seems to me the best book ever done on the terrifying social dysfunction of the beautiful people. Ms Stein is now 81. She is the daughter of Dr Jules Stein (1896-1981), the son of Lithuanian Jews, who became a celebrity ophthalmologist yet so loved music and show business that he founded the MCA agency – Music Corporation of America.

The marriage of medicine and ten-percenting is important to this book, and Jean Stein – who is clear-eyed, and knows where the bodies are buried – has the innate touch and scalpel smile of an expert autopsist. She does not quite write, but she composes absorbing, novelistic oral histories. In 1982 she did one on Edie Sedgwick, the Sixties model, junkie, sexpot and icon, a ghost long before her death. Now Stein delivers a calm Götterdämmerung that can be read as the fearsome annals of a haunted Hollywood, as well as an adroit response to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952), earlier proof of California’s soft spot for fallen angels.

West of Eden is selective and yet, by the end of its 334 pages, you feel that the light and the shadow have fallen on nearly every­one. There are just five subjects. First: Edward L Doheny, the oil tycoon who established the architecture of Los Angeles, and helped inspire There Will Be Blood. Then there are the Warners, but chiefly Jack, the youngest of four who outlived and betrayed his brothers, and who abandoned a nice Jewish wife for an adventuress and ended up being painted by Salvador Dalí and dreaded as “a character”. There is also Jane Garland, a schizophrenic child of great wealth who drifted around with various unofficial nurses and uncertain friends. Next is the teeming casebook called Jennifer Jones; and then the Steins themselves, which means Jules and Jean, and her two daughters by William vanden Heuvel, one of whom now publishes the weekly magazine the Nation.

In shaping these five windows, Stein has interviewed numerous tribe members, many of whom have memories, wounds and nightmares for which they are in therapy (or script development – the two forms are very alike). Her tone and manner are matter-of-fact, but she knows how wary those close to Eden are about trusting stories. Life is a competing set of fantasies, and given that lies have always been allowed in LA, falsehood itself, as a moral handicap, has come to mean little. Though all “true”, this book reads like a dream.

A short review cannot cover all five windows in detail, so let me fix on the one I know best: the glass or screen in which Jennifer Jones existed like a butterfly. Born in 1919 (Gore Vidal once told me she was three years older; gossip devours fact), she was the daughter of an Oklahoma showman who thought she would act – on screen, of course, but also always and everywhere. She married a young actor, Robert Walker, and they had two sons. Then in 1941 she was seen by the mogul David Selznick: he was moved by her and she was drawn upwards by her chance of stardom. Each abandoned a spouse and two sons. They became archetypes of misjudgement, though her mediocre acting never matched the skill or glow of other Selznick employees (such as Ingrid Bergman). They had a daughter, Mary Jennifer, who lived in rivalry with her mother and loathed her, and finally killed herself.

Jennifer, as Lauren Bacall reports, could be a little nutty. She and Selznick gave lavish Sunday parties: “Jennifer was busy doing her make-up and combing her hair and changing her outfit. She was kind of playing her part. She was always trying to be noticed, to have people really care about her and be there for her.”

This is not pretty stuff; maybe that is why these people were so desperate to be beautiful. Indulgence and neglect formed a damaging mixture that left bodies lining the roadside west of Eden. Lawyers and doctors catered to the stricken beauties. Shrinks played an especially devious role, though “shrink” was the wrong word; those hired to soothe mania in fact inflated their clients’ egos and dramatised their self-pity, the movie in which we all take part.

Hard to credit, often hard to stomach, this is a spellbinding record of that ancien régime. Whatever happened to the tribe? The members may be thinner on the ground now in southern California, but their ignoble nobility is everywhere.

David Thomson’s books include “Showman: the Life of David O Selznick” (André Deutsch) and “How to Watch a Movie” (Profile Books)

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein is published by Jonathan Cape (334pp, £20)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war