Directed by Noah Baumbach
In a recent New Yorker profile, director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg) is described as a kind of Kubrick-esque control freak on set, the kind of guy who might do 55 takes for a throwaway scene of actors rooting around in a closet. When you hear stories like these about other directors, they make intuitive sense. (The precision of The Social Network's punchlines feels like the product of David Fincher doing up to 99 takes per scene; the jungle chaos of Apocalypse Now feels like the product of Francis Ford Coppola going slowly insane in the tropics during the shoot.)
But it's a surprise to hear that after seeing Baumbach's latest film Frances Ha, a portrait of a struggling 20-something dancer in New York named Frances Halliday (Greta Gerwig) that feels as delightfully breezy and spontaneous as the production behind it apparently wasn't. Though it's as sharply observed and bitterly funny as his earlier films about family dysfunction and mental illness, Frances feels like the result of a director working hard at creating a counterpoint to the heaviness and tragic weight that have defined his earlier films. Making a soufflé, after all, does require you to beat the hell out of some eggs.
Like the pastry, this is a film that's light, airy, and as French as the contemporary New York setting will allow. As with its French New Wave inspirations (much of the film's music comes from Francois Truffaut's composer Georges Delerue), this loosely-plotted film finds Frances stumbling through episodes of triumph and (more often) humiliation — bonding and bickering with BFF Sophie (Mickey Sumner), behaving badly at upscale dinner parties, and scrambling to scrape together rent, roommates, and recital gigs at the ballet company where she's an understudy.
Frances is a familiar Baumbach type — educated enough to care deeply about projecting an image of success and erudition, but not quite successful or erudite enough to actually pull it off. (When told her plan to do something terribly stupid with her credit card is in fact a bad idea, she responds with exasperation, "I know that — I see documentaries!") She's also the type who impulsively dives into attempts to bolster that image anyway — often a disastrous combination. (Asked at a dinner party if she's been to Paris, she responds, "Not really, no. Kind of, once! Actually, no. Hey, what's that museum there with the escalators and tubes?")
If Baumbach is withering about Frances' pretensions, he's also deeply compassionate in portraying her attempts to maintain her friendships with people moving past her towards marriage and adulthood. She's trying desperately to hold on to a certain type of intimacy — not one involving sex and love, but one fueled by proximity, time, and a shared language of inside jokes. (Her most withering rebuke to Sophie: "Don't treat me like a three-hour brunch friend!"). And Gerwig is wonderful in the role — the rhythm of her sing-song rambling is a delight even when it's clearly hurtling towards disaster, and she also has a gift for physical comedy. (Watch for the way she wards off a romantic advance from Adam Driver's rich-kid lothario.)
Alongside that rich central portrayal is a wealth of other sparkling miniature details and very funny jokes. Like many directors, Baumbach knows how music can lift the spirits of his characters (as in the exultant scene here where Frances pirouettes down a city street to the strains of Bowie's "Modern Love"), but he's also keen on showing how music can also fail miserably as a mood-changer, even when it's needed most (as when a lonely Frances strolls around on a vacation with Hot Chocolate's "Every 1's a Winner" mocking her through her headphones.) And some terrific jokes here are born out of Baumbach's gift for editing — watch for the way that some of the funniest moments here come from Baumbach cutting away from a scene at the right split-second, isolating Frances at a peak of petulance or glee.
There's no doubt that some readers won't be able to help groaning at the very concept of this film — it's true that pretty much everything here was well-worn territory even before Lena Dunham put together two seasons of "Girls." (It is interesting how chaste this film is compared to Dunham's series — armchair psychologists might pin that on the fact that Baumbach and Gerwig are dating.) But it's hard to be mad at a film that contains this much warm humor and poetry, however familiar it may be. And if the cheerful ending here seems a touch convenient, it's refreshing that it avoids the temptation to make a serious generational statement, opting instead for a light-hearted shrug that things will probably be fine. The spell the film weaves lasts right up to the final scene, which explains the reason for that truncated title and underscores how this film is also as much a tribute to New York as Woody Allen's own black-and-white classic Manhattan. It's a scene where Baumbach shows how New York is a city that can compress and constrict you, but also one that shows the end result of that constriction can still manage to be something funny and wonderful.