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

Show Hide image

Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.