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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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