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Film review: Frances Ha ****

By Preston Wilder

Greta Gerwig is Frances Halladay – a flake, a goofball, a character. She’s a dancer, or at least an apprentice with a dance company. She’s from California, but lives in New York. She’s 27, which is obviously not old yet somehow … old. Her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) reveals that she was pregnant, and had a miscarriage. “I can’t believe that pregnant is no longer crazy,” muses Frances, almost to herself. Her world is changing.

Frances is impulsive, and perhaps narcissistic. She’s the kind of person who’ll say random things, and people think she’s eccentric – but in fact what she says isn’t random, it’s just that it’s meaningful only to herself. Let’s meet up, “I’ll be the girl with acne holding more acne,” she giggles when leaving a phone message, because she found a pimple on her chin that morning – and of course the person hearing the message won’t know what she’s talking about, but that detail never crosses her mind. In a way, she lacks empathy; she’s too caught up in herself. She’ll share personal details (“I have a meeting with Colleen on Monday”) with a girl she’s only just met. “I don’t know you,” points out the girl.

“I like things that look like mistakes,” says Frances. She’s a kook, and a bit of a klutz. She can’t account for her bruises. She receives a tax rebate in the post, and is so excited she impulsively invites a guy out to dinner – but then her credit card is rejected (“I’m so embarrassed,” she says. “I’m not a real person yet”) and she rushes out of the restaurant to get some cash, and the ATM isn’t working, and she slips and falls and hurts herself on the pavement. “Did you go to Switzerland?” asks her date sarcastically when she finally comes back. “Have I been to Switzerland? Um, no,” she replies, oblivious.

Frances Ha is a character study, co-written by Gerwig and her boyfriend, director Noah Baumbach. It’s also a tale of female friendship, Frances’ camaraderie with soulmate Sophie – “We’re the same person,” is her standard line – anchoring the plot, though also standing in for the film’s larger themes of growing up and becoming an adult as opposed to a post-college layabout (Sophie is her old college friend, which is why their relationship must be subtly outgrown). But the film is also a film-buff reverie on Truffaut and Godard and the whole early-60s New Wave, this black-and-white New York with Georges Delerue on the soundtrack (yes, the film is in black-and-white; deal with it) harking back to Jean-Pierre Leaud and Anna Karina in Paris – and there’s actually an interlude in Paris, though Frances’ initial response when asked if she’s ever been to Paris is classic Frances: “No, not really … Kind of, once … Actually, no.”

Paris is the second of three trips taken by our heroine in the course of the movie. The first is to her family in Sacramento, her parents played by Gerwig’s real-life parents – a surprisingly sweet five-minute sequence that both deflects Frances’ narcissism and indirectly reinforces it (we can tell that she’s never been starved for attention) – while the third trip is back to her old college in upstate New York, bringing her face-to-face with her post-adolescent self. The film is episodic, and it’s hard to know what local audiences will make of its hipster milieu (it’s playing for just a few days at the Friends of the Cinema Society) – but in fact, beneath the hi-jinks and New-York-bohemian trappings there’s a very sincere quest for Identity, which is why the final shot is so unexpectedly touching.

“You know which Virginia Woolf novel this reminds me of?” says Frances, showing the remnants of a liberal-arts education, or just showing off (she keeps saying how much she loves to read, but we never see her actually doing it). She tap-dances, runs down the street, hikes up her skirt and pees on the subway tracks – watch out for the third rail! – after a night out. She’ll talk too much and embarrass herself, especially around people who are settled or successful. She’s all random quirks and non sequiturs. “I put my ring on my thumb, and now I’m having trouble taking it off,” she frowns, apropos of nothing. Frances Ha is a wonderful comedy, above all because it doesn’t depend on the audience finding Frances loveable; it’s like Greenberg, Mr. Baumbach’s previous film, in simultaneously embracing its protagonist and judging her harshly (though it’s much less angry than Greenberg). “I’m too tall to marry,” claims Frances, and Benjy – a nice guy who wants to be a writer – repeatedly calls her “undateable”, though in fact she and Benjy seem forever on the brink of getting together. Maybe it’ll happen. Maybe not. What’s the difference? She’s Frances Ha.


DIRECTED BY Noah Baumbach

STARRING Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Michael Zegen

US 2012                           86 mins

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