Frances Ha seems like it’s on its way to a successful release, and, I have to admit, it falls on a very unique tuft of ground in the cinema landscape – a confluence of genres that are all distantly related and respectful of one another but rarely seen as one big movement.
For one, it stars Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote it with her boyfriend, director Noah Baumbach. Gerwig is one of only two bonafide “stars” to emerge from the Mumblecore movement. Placing her front and center for the second time means Baumbach is claiming leadership of the movement in a sense. I found their first collaboration, Greenberg, superior to this one. This time around they rely much more often on Mumblecore’s signature device: sputtering dialogue that sounds kind of fresh/kind of aggravating on account if its realness. Characters begin thoughts in fits and starts and mean to get their points across, but often as not fail to. I’d previously heard that Beeswax was the most accessible of all Mumblecore films; although I could see the artistry in it, watching it once was enough.
Often these filmmakers claim the mantle of Cassavetes. Any time someone with a camera says he is a “big fan of Cassavetes” I get leery, and I’ve uttered those words myself. It sometimes means: Technically cheap, dramatically inconclusive, and substituting dull emotional bluntness for on-point storytelling.
The other precedent claimed by Mumblecore is the New Wave, and Frances Ha pays explicit homage to 400 Blows in particular, and the whole movement via its black and white photography. New York today presented in the somber-sweet light of youthful Paris in the early 60s. Scenes like this one from A Band Apart:
They’re obviously smart enough to know that Frances Ha lacked plot – my initial diagnosis. Adding more plot, you might guess from the name of this blog, is a cure-all I think most scripts should try. After reflecting on it, though, I think it comes down to our feelings about the lead character. It’s very different from the last American love letter to the New Wave, (500) Days of Summer, but the audience split on both films falls on just about exactly the same lines: How much you fall for the female lead.
That “Oh my God, I’m such a dork!” act makes girl-next-door kinds of beauties more endearing until they’re about 25, but then it’s time to snap out of it. You could say that Frances Ha is the story of a woman who depleted her well of charm for this reason – now she’s 27 – and that her immediate problem, losing her apartment, is a parcel of her life crisis: how she interacts with everyone. That’s if you buy the character in the first place. I went with two friends, a woman who said “No way,” and a man who felt he hadn’t gotten his point across during the post-movie beer and emailed me the next morning: “We’re not as in love with Frances/Greta Gerwig as he (Baumbach) is. Sure, she’s an appealing actress, but there are just too many inconsequential scenes during which it’s not enough to simply gaze at her.”
I caught it on the same Saturday I watched a revival screening of Scarecrow (screenplay by Garry Michael White) which may have put me in exactly the wrong frame of mind to forgive the simplicity of Frances Ha. Call me a crass American, but I still like plot. Yet I wonder, is it any worse than, say, Claire’s Knee? Baumbach is the Eric Rohmer of our generation, cranking out good enough scenario after good enough scenario. He has a better claim to the mantle of the New Wave than anyone else in America. I’ll still go to his next film on opening weekend. And I’ll be hoping that the writer who agonized over revisions to The Squid and the Whale is as proud as the music supervisor who got a deal on the jazz riff from 400 Blows.