All signs seemingly point to Frances Ha, director Noah Baumbach’s delightful new film that was just released among the first Criterion Collection titles to be dual format, being another clichéd dramedy of New York twentysomething struggles influenced by the Nouvelle Vague or 1970s Woody Allen films. And yet it manages to somehow avoid clichés and utilizes its influence to actually make itself better rather than make itself an imitation. Its success is in no small part because of lead actress and co-writer Greta Gerwig, whose innocent reality as the titular Frances makes for one of the most refreshingly human characters to grace the screen in some time and acts as the role that will make people who hate Greta Gerwig ostensibly not hate Greta Gerwig anymore. It is a film that is both somehow old and brand new, specifically relying on inspiration from past classics—such as using the music of Georges Delerue—but also focused on the new possibilities of digital filmmaking. It is a superb Criterion release that will make you want to revisit it over and over again.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Frances Ha is the fact that it should be depressing but isn’t, because Gerwig’s Frances is something more than just a lovable loser. Yes she faces setback after setback, including always struggling to make rent, never being able to hold a real job, having her relationship with her boyfriend fall apart, and worst of all having her friendship with best bud Sophie fall apart as well, but her optimism—somewhere between wholesome earnestness and simple delusion— and excited sense of the freedom of waning youth is a centrally cleansing force that sort of lets the audience overlook the true unhappiness in someone so sincere. Frances and her tragically familiar New York experiences amount to a “Little Engine that Could” syndrome that endears us to her and vice versa, making a direct connection to her own wayward attempts at resolving mediocrity.
Other than subverting the expected mopiness of stories like this, Frances Ha also does a great job of flipping the dramatic notions of the main character’s redemptions on its head as well. When Frances leaves New York and heads to her hometown of Sacramento to spend Christmastime with her family, we expect some sort of change to push her in the right direction. We think maybe she’ll unexpectedly meet someone who can set her up with the job of her dreams or maybe her parents give her an epiphanic speech that completely changes her outlook, but no, this doesn’t happen, and we’re left with a seemingly innocuous jaunt to the West Coast that nevertheless shows us why we root for her in the first place. The same goes for her impulsive trip to Paris. Though much more tragic and more telling than her family holiday in California, she goes to France to be rejuvenated—and in someone else’s hackneyed movie she would be—but in truth she only forces herself in vain into believing she’s ok. Yet this delusion and her actions afterwards also force her to start over and rethink things in a way completely free of banal dramatics.
The core of the film lies in her on again off again friendship with Sophie (played by Mickey Sumner who is, in short, perfect), which succeeds in making their bond one of the best portrayals of meaningful platonic love outside of schmaltzy coming-of-age parables à la Stand By Me. The truthfulness of the performances makes the relationship legitimate and the ease of their dialogue’s casual banter is the main reason we believe in it, which seems easy until you learn that Baumbach demanded dozens of takes from his actors in order to make even the most ordinary scenes come across as natural. A lot of work went into making it seem effortless and it worked.
Though it isn’t packed to the brim as some of the most feted Criterion titles the supplemental material simply does what not many other releases can do, and that is make the movie itself even better. Composed of a trio of conversations that include Baumbach talking to director and neckerchief aficionado Peter Bogdanovich, Gerwig talking with actor and filmmaker Sarah Polley, and Baumbach talking about the film’s look with director of photography Sam Levy and color masterer Pascal Dangin, they effectively tackle subject matter from different angles but highlight the ways in which this charming little film truly resonates.
Bogdanovich and Baumbach are clearly comfortable friends and colleagues, and name drop a ton of tantalizing influences like Truffaut and Rohmer that will tickle any bona fide cinephile, but the significance of the conversation—as with any conversation about this movie, really—lies in their insights about Frances (and Gerwig) herself. Baumbach’s honesty about her hopeful feelings of intuitive decisions and the way in which Frances intentionally never protects herself really gets to the point of the character being so bare yet so lovable. Gerwig and Polley’s conversation also hits spot-on a lot of the things I found great about the movie including the character’s loneliness, the controlled spontaneity of the scenes, and Frances’ unironic excursions, but the best part is their agreement about how Frances’ true dramatic realization amounts to her recognizing that she actually had everything she gets in the end before and just wasn’t able to see it until then.
My favorite conversation on the disc is the third one about the look of the film because you get a sense of the nuts and bolts of the process, and that the shift towards digital filmmaking is sometimes significant in the new and daunting exploration of uncharted territory. Dangin, Levy, and Baumbach are obviously cinema purists, but they also see the ways in which shooting digitally can get at the very same concepts surrounding the aura of film itself. With Frances Ha they wanted to evoke film but were very much in favor of the rebelliousness of something new, and even the most hard-hearted film diehards should appreciate that.
The release is rounded out with a standard trailer and an essay by playwright Annie Baker, which I found to be so good that I briefly—and foolishly—considered just typing out her essay word for word and submitting it as this review because I couldn’t have put what she says any better myself. It’s one of those rare Criterion essays that coalesces the essence of the film into a perfect little commentary without relying on overly didactic and tiring discourse that loses the spirit of the film its talking about. The one gripe about the release I would have is the missed opportunity with the cover art. The cover evokes the carefree black and white glee of the film, but a cover that appropriated the movie’s black and pink poster design seems to be to be somehow more provocative than the otherwise random cover art still from one of the movie’s key scenes as it stands now.
I’ve seen Frances Ha a handful of times now and it’s the little gift that keeps on giving. It’s slowly coming to occupy that quietly legendary position of a movie I could put on at all times and feel instantly rejuvenated. The film is a real treat and the package Criterion has put together, while not the most lavish they’ve ever produced, still gives you a complete appreciation of one of the best films of 2013.