Late one evening, restless and unable to get to sleep (this happens more often than I’d like, particularly when there’s a full moon), I thought to myself, “I need to watch a good movie.” In all honesty, sometimes that’s all it takes to help me settle down – in a bizarre way, the racing thoughts that often prevent me from sleep may be calmed by seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. Being in somewhat of a melancholy mood, I decided to go for a Noah Baumbach film – his latest, Frances Ha.
Written by Greta Gerwig and Baumbach (who have been romantically linked since 2011), the film is shot entirely in black and white, and Gerwig plays the title role of Frances. The beginning scenes introduce Frances and her best friend, Sofie (played by Mickey Sumner), who share an apartment in New York City. Frances is a dancer, while Sofie is a writer. Frances is at a bit of a standstill in her life; that familiar post-college phase where part of her wants to recoil and hide from reality, while another part wants to forge assertively into the life of an independent adult. At the moment, Frances is hanging in the balance. She is somewhat child-like – I imagine her lying on her back on a carousel, spinning in circles and dizzy, unsure whether to get up and make a jump. Frances is attempting to get some career traction in a dance company, but throughout most of this film, it is unsuccessful – to a disheartening degree. She dreams of a career as a dancer, but her moves are only barely sufficient – they are good-natured, yet klutzy. She runs and frolics, spinning, almost the human-version of a tornado touching down on the smooth wooden dance floor. She “can’t account for her bruises” and makes wry comments about herself: “I’m so embarrassed. I’m not a real person yet”. In the meantime, Frances and Sofie act like teenagers, playing all sorts of youthful games, such as play-fighting, singing and twirling in circles across busy intersections, without regard for traffic, passersby, or time. They joke and compare their relationship to that of an old lesbian couple who’ve stopped having sex. Their bond can only be described as capricious, reality-escaping, youthful, and quirky.
Frances’s world comes to a bit of a halt, however, when Sofie decides to loosen the ties by moving out to live with another friend. Frances is left to figure out things for herself – which she is undeniably ill-equipped for. She moves in with two male friends in Chinatown, Lev (played by GIRLS’ Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen), two dry-witted artist-writers who aren’t a far cry from male versions of Frances herself. Although the main difference between the three is money – Frances is, no doubt, struggling, while Lev and Benji lend more of an ear to the trust-fund crowd. Benji jokes that Frances is “undatable”. Frances stumbles through life, alternating between avoiding reconciliation with Sofie, and feeling desperately aware of the need for one. She makes foolish decisions, such as a two-day trip to Paris, which she funds with a credit card she receives in the mail. I, myself, was not sure how or where Frances would end up next – but in a way, that’s really what made the film so fun to watch. Some of the things Frances says and does are beautiful, but they are, rightfully so, in an off-balance, idiosyncratic way:
It’s that thing when you’re with someone, and you love them and they know it, and they love you and you know it… but it’s a party… and you’re both talking to other people, and you’re laughing and shining… and you look across the room and catch each other’s eyes… but – but not because you’re possessive, or it’s precisely sexual… but because… that is your person in this life. And it’s funny and sad, but only because this life will end, and it’s this secret world that exists right there in public, unnoticed, that no one else knows about. It’s sort of like how they say that other dimensions exist all around us, but we don’t have the ability to perceive them. That’s – That’s what I want out of a relationship. Or just life, I guess.
The collaboration of Gerwig and Baumbach is innovative – it is bittersweet, clumsy, yet refreshing. To a certain extent, this description embodies the story’s protagonist, Frances. It is melancholy, yet stirring; charismatic, yet, at times, cringe-worthy; but never predictable. The black-and-white scenes are so plush, so rich, that as the viewer, I wanted to reach out and touch them. The stills in the movie could be works of art in themselves. Hanging in a gallery, they’d be the ones to make me pause and wistfully consider the stories behind them. The downcast hopes and anxieties of twenty-something Frances brought rueful acknowledgment of my own disillusioned post-college time. There is a certain sincerity and honesty to this film – in it, humor comes through observation, not through any sort of urgency. This is what makes it not only watchable, but relatable. Frances Ha peels back the blinds to reveal a light that stings the eyes of those that have lived through similar eras of uncertainty – it investigates the frustrations, joys, and ambiguity of being between youth and adulthood. It shines light on a veiled nostalgia – its final message is that accepting your own limitations can bring gratification and ease, and perhaps even wisdom.