Frances Ha (2012)

Dir. Noah Baumbach. Starring Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Michael Zegen

Frances Ha is occasionally a relentless series of moments far too short to even be vignettes. They are visual one-liners, which is a seriously risky way to make a movie and the only good way to tell a story about Frances (Gerwig). But for a little while, the movie breaks into a nearly narrative arc in which Frances, armed with a credit card she’s been offered in the mail and loaned a little apartment by family of an acquaintance, does Paris. (No one says anything about “Frances in France,” which I can’t decide is a missed opportunity or a blessing.) She doesn’t do much of Paris. She fails to combat jet lag, waking up after four in the afternoon. She tries to set up a date with a couple of American friends she knows live in Paris. She has a meaningful phone call with (I’m sorry for what I’m about to write here) her best old ex-friend, Sophie (Sumner), who is leaving New York for Tokyo in a matter of days. And then she flies back to New York after less than a weekend in the City of Light. There is a meeting with her boss, Colleen (Charlotte d’Amboise) she has to get back to; she’s expecting good news. Colleen is a little surprised when Frances spent the weekend in Paris (and over the Atlantic). We could have moved the meeting, she tells Frances. It’s like a wheelbarrow of bricks: of course she could have moved the meeting, and chalk up another frustrating moment in which Frances has made her life that much harder because she doesn’t think about things for more than two seconds at a time. More than that, though, is the genuinely hypnotic spell she weaves when you’re with her. She was so sure that she had to be back in New York for this meeting that, watching this movie, I was also sure she had to be back in New York for that meeting. Watching Frances run around is like waking up from the nap you take when you’re working off a migraine or a sinus headache; with bleary eyes and muddled brain, the laws of physics just seem different. The black-and-white cinematography, which is remarkably unobtrusive despite its appearance in a recent movie, seems to support the point of view that Frances is living in a different world than the rest of us.

There are other directors who could have made this movie (although Noah Baumbach is certainly a wonderful choice), but Greta Gerwig feels essential to the movie. This movie, in the hands of another actress, could have devolved into unbearable twee within the first few minutes, and the reason it doesn’t is because Gerwig sells us on making what Frances cares about serious. Frances’ attachment to Sophie is childish, certainly, but there’s something honest about it which makes the movie run. When Sophie tells Frances late in the picture that she’s always felt competitive with her, we’re all a little shocked—there’s something of the “God spilled a person” persuasion in her—but it’s not far-fetched, either. Even if the movie shows us that Frances is not much of a dancer despite that being her chosen career, it’s possible to see why Sophie got tetchy in the first place. Frances is serious about dancing, even if she isn’t particularly serious about anything else. There are catchphrases and goofy observations and lazy Sundays in other pieces of Frances’ life, but she is anchored by the straightfaced honesty of her love of dance. For Sophie, who is whatever the millennial version of a yuppie is, that must be threatening. Her former roommate and her best friend has something like a vocation. People can call her an artist, and if one is inclined to forgive artists for being ditzy or scatterbrained or bad decision makers, then Frances might be more than usually artistic in temperament. But Sophie is at Random House, with a job probably not much better than the ones Alice and Charlotte have in The Last Days of Disco.

What structure Frances Ha has is built in through the several addresses where Frances gets her mail. (Thus the title of the movie; rather than try to fit “Frances Halladay” on her mailbox, she folds the paper back to reveal “Frances Ha.”) These are primarily enormous apartments, like the one that Lev (Adam Driver, lol), and Benji (Zegen) share, or the just a little too big variety like the one she can’t afford without Sophie. (She can’t afford the apartment where Lev and Benji live, either. If I understand the movie correctly, rent is something like $3,600 a month.) The low point is a return to Vassar, where she did her undergrad, to be an RA and pour drinks at fundraisers. The places don’t feel terribly important—Brooklyn is like those Pandora charm bracelets in the sense that I know some people really like it, but I have no ability to empathize with them—but the constant transitions matter a great deal. Frances is twenty-seven, which is one of those ages that sounds old if you’re still trying to sneak into college classes, and the movie proves that she is essentially unattached. She has no financial stake in these apartments because she can barely afford any bit of the lease; her job at the dance company is barely even seasonal until she gets hired to do things other than dance; she has no boyfriend or significant other, and the closest the movie comes to giving her one for the long haul is when she and Benji build a little chemistry by calling each other “undateable.” When she moves to Poughkeepsie to work at Vassar, it’s a breath of fresh air. Her inability to reschedule that meeting with Colleen has a tie-in with her inability to leave New York: don’t people dance in other cities? At least Poughkeepsie is cheaper than Manhattan. It would be one thing to give up on her dream of dancing, or at least of choreography, for at twenty-seven you have to imagine Frances ain’t going to dance forever. But she’s from Sacramento; people dance there too, just as they dance in Des Moines and Kansas City and Trenton and Flagstaff.

Therein lies the great problem in Frances’ life: she has only the vaguest idea of what it means to be serious, and seems to rely on an entirely exterior understanding of what that looks like. (At one point she apologizes to someone by saying, “I’m not a real person yet.”) Serious dancers must be located in New York, or serious friends live together, or serious women are able to pay for dinner. Frances gets a tax rebate in the mail (which results in a face/laugh combination from Gerwig that made me laugh like a maniac) and decides to use that to pay for dinner on a date she has with Lev. When it turns out that she can only pay in cash or credit card, which makes no sense but whatever, she insists on paying for dinner despite the fact that Lev is loaded, or, alternately, that he could pay presently and she could go to an ATM later. But no: Frances intends to be serious and pay for dinner, and what results is a 5K through the streets of New York in a desperate search for an ATM. She leaves the restaurant while it is chatty, bright, filled with people. When she returns, the restaurant is so dark that the only reason we can even see Lev inside is because he’s at the window. We’re left with the sense that Frances’ desire to be a real person is driving her insane but also, somehow, noble. It’s hard not to agree with a sentiment like “Sometimes it’s good to do what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it.”

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