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

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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit