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Frances Ha

Ah, love is in the air.  While the exuberant, spinning, leaping, play-fighting, occasionally tripping heroine of Frances Ha remains UNDATEABLE! to the end, the film is in more ways than one way a love story.  There is the friendship between Frances Halliday (Greta Gerwig) and her friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), a kind of enduring love affair that would seem to trump whatever romantic relationship either woman assays with men.  "Tell me the story of us," Frances asks Sophie as two sit close together one evening.  "Again?," Sophie asks.  Frances nods.

More implicit but no less effusive is the obvious love of  director for star.  Noah Baumbach is these days the romantic partner of Greta Gerwig.  To watch Frances Ha is to have abundant proof just how infatuated Baumbach would seem to be.  He can hardly keep his camera off her.

If you've seen Frances Ha, the couple's previous collaboration, Greenberg (although that film was co-written with Baumbach's ex-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh), or another film through which Ms. Gerwig amiably hoofed it, Whit Stillman's surprisingly delightful Damsels in Distress, you might well understand Mr. Baumbach's feelings.  A more charming, offbeat presence in American film these days would be hard to find.

Ms. Gerwig's presence, her acting and even her writing seem comparable to her dancing.  That dancing is unlikely to provoke any envy beyond the grave from Cyd Charisse.  Neither is it as endearingly hopeless as were the measured steps of Violet, the persnickety coed of Damsels in Distress, whose dream to originate a national dance craze was hamstrung as much by her inability to dance as her futility at stumbling upon a timeless bit of choreography.  Gerwig can move with some grace and rightfully takes pride in the physical aspect of her comedy, whether it happens to be a dance maneuver gone wrong or a full-scale wipeout on a Manhattan sidewalk, as we see in Frances Ha, as she sprints around to find an ATM in the New York night so she can return to a restaurant to pay the check.

The appeal of Greta Gerwig, actor and writer - much as one can reasonably separate her contributions to the script from Noah Baumbach - is similar to that of Greta Gerwig, the dancer, the restless five foot eight inch frame, the occasional blur moving through the frame of Frances Ha.  A good bit of that appeal would seem to reveal itself when a movement or sentence goes in an unpredictable direction or  simple awry.  This is, perhaps, explained, or not explained, in a dinner party conversation, during which Frances is asked the inevitable:

What do you do?'s kind of hard to explain.
Because what you do is complicated?
Um...because I don't really do it.

She's referring to her lagging career as a dancer, but the puzzling (at least to the man asking the question) exchange goes some way to describing the appeal of Frances Halliday and the actress playing her.  Occasionally, the actress would seem to try a little too hard to please, just as the writing strains at certain moments to capture whatever sort of zeitgeist is at work here.  But the extended dinner party sequence - relatively static by the film's standards - is one of the best in Frances Ha.

The man asking questions of Frances is clearly not the only one on whom her charm seems to be lost.  Frances' life is beginning to resemble a dance performance steadily coming undone.  She finds herself at a table with settled, successful New Yorkers and flounders a bit among them.  All the more so when she finds out that her estranged best friend Sophie is moving to Tokyo, news that she would seem to be the last to hear.  But later, thanks to the liberating effect of several glasses of wine, Frances waxes passionate about the sort of love, the life for which she longs.  The perception of her among the other dinner party guests undergoes a subtle  reassessment.

The rancor with Sophie is one of several reversals for Frances.  First Sophie decides to move into Manhattan with someone else.  This before two friends later fight over Sophie's straight-laced fiancee.   Unable to afford the apartment she shared with Sophie, Frances moves in with two rather hip young men about town, Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen).  It's Benji who repeatedly declares Frances UNDATEABLE!, much as he slowly falls for her in his own right.  Frances can barely afford her share of that rental three-way and can't at all when the head of her dance company essentially lays her off and advises her to take a full-time day job.  She receives that bad news after an ill-advised and unsatisfying weekend in Paris, courtesy of a new credit card.   Eventually, as with the glum young men in Baumbach's first feature, Kicking and Screaming, Frances finds herself in the embarrassing position of residing in her college town long after she should have established herself in the world, working as a summer resident assistant and living in a dorm room.  

A woman on something of a downward spiral, or at least enduring a good bit of unpleasantness would seem a likely enough story for Noah Baumbach to tell.  Painful as the reminder might be, there was Margot at the Wedding, a low point in the career of the writer and director.  Among the grievances that Jennifer Jason Leigh might still harbor toward her ex-husband, there is the unfortunate moment when her Pauline character is sent scrambling into the woods, where she shits her pants (or at least her panties).   That the most physical example of the squalor and angst wallowing into which "Margot" devolves.  There was more of the same in Greenberg, poor, sweet Florence (Gerwig) looking for love and foolhardy enough to try to find it with the self-invovled (to say the very least) Roger Greenberg.    

Difficult as many found it to watch, Greenberg actually concluded on a modest wave of optimism.  That hardly prepared one for the outright joy of certain sequences in Frances Ha.  And much more than was the case with that previous film, Baumbach (along with his co-writer) reverses the apparent downward spiral of Frances and leaves her positvely fulfilled, looking forward, moving into a new apartment.  Turning, dare one say, his usual frown upside down.  The director and co-writer of Frances Ha acts like a man who's happened upon a very effective anti-depressant.  Instead of Zoloft or Prozac, he's found Greta Gerwig.  

There was an interesting reaction to Frances Ha in the Chicago Reader.  Interesting, like so many film reviews in the Reader these days, in that it was largely useless as presented.  Many of the right words, just in the wrong order.  The gentleman in the Reader compared Frances Ha to Woody Allen's "imitations" of  Bergman and Fellini and concluded by saying,  "the creative nadir may be when Baumbach uses Georges Delerue's iconic theme from Jules and Jim as a shortcut to pathos."  With regard to music, Frances Ha sports quite a varied soundtrack, the most enduring moment of which for most audiences is probably the use of Bowie's "Modern Love," which accompanies a particularly ebullient dash through the city by Frances.  As for the Delerue, Baumbach has said that he was reluctant to use the composer's music as any sort of obvious homage.  But mainly, in addition to "Camille," he uses Delerue compositions from The King of Hearts, which (if you believe the director), he has not seen.  

But the evocation of Allen is apt, even if the allusion is not.  Seen one way, Frances Ha is something of a mash-up of what many would consider Woody Allen's golden age (albeit with some of the verve of the new wave films, perhaps those of Godard more than Truffaut).  In the New York setting, the lovely black and white images (digital though they may be), the focus on a heroine both youthful and zany, there are reminders of both Manhattan and Annie Hall.  Sadly, Gerwig and Baumbach, as is the case with the writing and directing of Jennifer Westfeldt (Kissing Jessica Stein, Ira & Abby, Friends With Kids) make a much better Woody Allen film than the man himself has made in twenty years or more.  

Beyond the similarities to 1970's Woody Allen or La Nouvelle Vague of the 60's, Frances Ha has something that neither its New York or French predecessors lack.  That something, chiefly, is Greta Gerwig.  Not just her presence on screen, but her voice in the film's script.  The writing, like the dancing, doesn't always soar, but it does offer a considerable kind of progress from women only as seen through and voiced by male auteurs.     

Frances Ha stands on its own virtues in its own time.  It lacks the stature of Greenberg, a film that will likely endure among the best work of Baumbach and Ben Stiller (and to a lesser degree, perhaps Ms. Gerwig).  But Frances Ha does stand, often upon the long legs of Greta Gerwig.  It runs.  It occasionally wipes out.  But the camera is rapt.  And in this case, who can blame it. 



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