Let’s get a few things straight. First, New Yorkers are not inherently interesting and certainly are not inherently more interesting than other people. Second, obnoxious people who talk about nothing are not inherently enthralling. Such characters are often nothing more than overgrown children (and the opening shot of Frances Ha embodies that), and depicting them is fine, but just because they exist doesn’t mean they deserve to be depicted. Something needs to be said about such characters or their lifestyle, or observation needs to yield insight. There has been a tendency in the arts (and especially the movies) to ignore those facts and make a big deal about how everyday their arty New York hipster protagonist is and to make a big deal about the possibility of quirky romance.
These things have all bothered me about previous Noah Baumbach films, notably The Squid & The Whale and Highball, the former of which is passable but does nothing for me and the latter of which never should have been made, as the filmmaking itself reflects (in Baumbach’s defense, he made the film as an experiment, hated it, and never wanted it to get out; unfortunately, I found it anyway). To a certain extent, Frances Ha does this too. The first half of the movie is particularly grating, with over-written jokes and a character whose quirkiness is over-emphasized to the point of exhaustion. There’s a fine line between writing an interesting hipster and just writing to make your character more hipster, and the film doesn’t exhibit that kind of awareness. A scene where Frances (Greta Gerwig) can’t buy dinner by debit and runs out to an ATM is so ridiculous that it breaks the film’s spell (despite its problems, Frances Ha certainly captivates) without being funny in the process. The same goes for a shot that shows Frances running across New York to David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” a scene that will inevitably draw comparisons to Leos Carax’s far more captivating and far bolder shot in Mauvais Sang of the exact same thing. Not all the jokes are bad; a dinner conversation in a place where Frances is staying has spit-fire dialogue and great one-liners. As a rule of thumb, the more people there are in the conversation, the funnier it is.
But then something strange happens. Frances Ha starts to do what many see in The Comedy, and it deconstructs the low-rent, struggling artist, overgrown hipster archetype. I have never thought that Baumbach’s visuals have had anything to add to his scripts, but with Frances Ha, that changes. Suddenly, the heavily treated black-and-white cinematography makes sense. Black-and-white naturally reminds us of older films and of the past, so by filming Frances Ha as such, one might think that Baumbach is trying to recapture the past. In fact, it’s an extension of Frances’ world; she acts like a child and in many ways demands to be treated like a child, but her actions are so forced and ridiculous, that the obvious, heavy treatment becomes an extension of Frances’ attempts to recapture a youth that she knows she no longer has (at age 27) but never learned how to get rid of.
Frances realizes this a bit later than the film does, and its swing from an over-the-top comedy to a more earnest portrait of a very archetypal and romanticized character is a bit too extreme. If the first half was a bit more down to earth, or if the latter half would come out stronger about major concerns it would give the film a more focused (and insightful) quality. After reminding us a few too many times that Frances is a dancer, the film asks what happens when you’re 27 years old and you just aren’t cut out to do that thing you always want to do? Frances begins to work at her old college as an RA hoping to take more dance classes (she can’t), and her numerous awkward conversations encourage us not only to question her, but to pity her. Her love life that remains at the film’s forefront opens up in a much less tired way, and she notices that her friendships, which pass her by as her friends move to other neighborhoods and even other countries, are not rooted in the same college groups that she so desperately wants them to be. Another great dinner conversation shows her unable to connect and constantly trying to talk about the past while everyone else talks about career changes, relocation, and marriage. Frances just hasn’t grown up yet.
When she realizes this, the film becomes unexpectedly (for this viewer, anyway) moving, and to hear Frances say that “pregnant” isn’t necessarily a disaster anymore feels like a symbolic awakening for all of the 20-something hipsters that have taken over 21st century independent cinema. While The Comedy exposes the trappings and unsustainability of such a lifestyle, Frances Ha confronts it directly and asks for a way out. The resolution is simple and forced, but it’s hard to argue with. In an age of self-deprecating irony, jokes about being “un-datable” (made explicit here), and continuing adolescence as one approaches 30s, Frances Ha sheds a light.