Critical Dialogue: Frances Ha
The legend of the French New Wave imagines a horde of dissatisfied critics, drunk on Hollywood and pulp, taking to the streets in broad daylight to re-create, as filmmakers, their favorite romances and noirs. However accurate (or not) this picture might be, films like Breathless, Band of Outsiders, or Shoot the Piano Player did aim to rework American popular cinema in a milieu that was pointedly “real,” gritty, un-movie-like. It’s a fitting irony, then, that the films of Truffaut, Godard et al have become integrated into cinema’s collective cultural imagination: the Paris of Breathless is as much a part of our fantasy movie-verse as the New York of Pickup on South Street or the Los Angeles of In a Lonely Place, and Belmondo’s smirk as much the mark of a star as Bogart’s slouch—all of them awaiting to be re-imagined, transplanted, adapted, revised.
Enter Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, whose new film Frances Ha, writes Amy Taubin in the latest issue of FILM COMMENT, “is blatantly a New Wave film, two generations removed… The editing is almost pure Truffaut in its combination of classicism in the dialogue sequences and elliptically in the montages that bridge them. The cinematography, with its myriad soft shades of gray, recalls the early black-and-white films of both Truffaut and Godard.”
For Godfrey Cheshire (writing at rogerebert.com) “the brittle self-consciousness (half boastful, half embarrassed) signified by his cinematic name-dropping has always been Baumbach’s artistic Achilles heel.” Cheshire considers Frances Ha’s New Wave citations evidence that “Baumbach’s reverential hyper-cinephilia has gotten the better of him again”—although “only to a point.” That last qualification is based largely on Baumbach’s close creative and romantic partnership with Gerwig, which, to Cheshire’s eyes, “has a freshness that may or not owe something to first-blush romance.” Here, too, Godard’s sixties work (in which Anna Karina frequently became the semi-willing object of a great deal of romantic deification and depreciation) is a close reference-point, but Taubin is quick to pinpoint where Baumbach breaks from his influences: “Gerwig’s Frances, unlike the characters Godard created for Anna Karina, is not opaque, mysterious, or victimized, almost certainly because Gerwig, who co-wrote the screenplay for Frances Ha, had a crucial role in imagining the character and translating her to the screen.”
Frances is a 27-year-old aspiring dancer stuck, in Cheshire’s words, “in that Janus-like, post-college phase where part of her seems to want to retreat to the womb, or at least Vassar, while another part wants to forge confidently into the realities of grown-up life in New York.” Gerwig plays her as a bundle of competing tendencies: playful, effervescent, fun; insecure, self-conscious, at times a little grating; sensitive, talented, unsure of herself but getting a little surer. It’s easy to see Gerwig’s performance as the animating spirit of Frances Ha—the one component of the film that feels as if it’s been torn from life, not from other movies. Its influences have little to do with the New Wave (even if Baumbach films her in the style of a consummate besotted New Wave director) and everything to do with the realities and uncertainties of young-adult experience. When Frances leaps through the streets of New York to Bowie’s “Modern Love,” you almost forget about Denis Lavant’s iconic Paris sprint to the same song in Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang.
But perhaps it’s not entirely fair to pit one element of the film against another like this; it is hard to see why a movie would need to be liberated from conventions that seem intended to support freedom of movement, location, and—most importantly—personal subject matter. That was Nick Pinkerton’s suggestion when he covered the film for The Village Voice during last year’s New York Film Festival (the opening reference is to Dean Wareham, who contributes to Frances Ha’s soundtrack):
It was Wareham's old band, Galaxie 500, who cadged the epochal title of an Ornette Coleman LP for their 1990 This is Our Music—and this announcement of proprietary pride in the humble property of one's life as suitable materials for art might be a subtitle for Baumbach and Gerwig's very parochial, very personal, very accessible film: This is Our Movie.
You could say the same of the New Wave directors who operated under the assumption that traditional Hollywood paradigms could be made to account for any setting, any character, any milieu; that “the humble property of one’s life” might be “suitable materials for art.” From this perspective, Baumbach’s copious New Wave citations come off as covert arguments that 21st-century New Yorkers are worth watching—and specifically this 21st-century New Yorker. Here, Gerwig’s performance and Baumbach’s meta-style are on the same wavelength: the first yells “look at me!” (even if, at the same time, Gerwig is always slightly apologizing for having us look at her); the second yells “look at her!” (with fewer apologies). As if we could look away.