I've entered my adult years growing along with the words and characters of Noah Baumbach. His is a world filled with highly literate people who are successful in a way, but always dissatisfied. There's a perpetual air of melancholy throughout his first film, Kicking and Screaming, that eventually evolved into full-blown cynicism in Greenberg. But Baumbach has never allowed his films to wallow in that point of view. No matter their challenges, his view is just as critical of their subject's as it is receptive to their emotional state.
That reception has marked his continued growth into Frances Ha, a film that may be confused as slight, but is really one of this year's true delights. If his previous films were entertaining slices of angst and occasional misanthropy, Frances Ha is the fairy tale that those characters might tell each other on their better days. It's delightfully funny, but still mired in the same kind of awkward transition period that marred the progress of his earlier characters. But humor isn't a new facet to the Baumbach world, the unbelievably sunny Frances (Greta Gerwig) is.
Baumbach's film sparkles, and a stark contrast in visual quality to that other black-and-white charmer of 2013, Much Ado About Nothing. While the monochromatic scheme aided the lazy summer vibe of the film, it wasn't exactly filled with visual splendor. The fairy-tale vibe of Frances Ha is much better represented in the contrasted visuals of the glasses of Frances' best friend shining in the night or the oasis against the dark of the city that her apartment provides her. The photography of Frances Ha provides contrasted spaces for Frances to work herself out in the real world, and draws much stronger lines of perspective between its characters because of it.
The other reason this works so well is Baumbach's decision to bookmark each step of Frances' adventure by her changing address. As each time-period ends, a simple black and white card shows up informing us of her new residence. He explicitly makes the city another character in Frances' life, crowding her with laundry and decorations when she's with her best friend, or the more sparse decorations of her higher-end apartment. This strongly conveys the way Frances has an effect on the lives of those around her even if she doesn't feel like she's going anywhere.
Even if the other elements were removed there would still be Greta Gerwig's performance to fall on. She had an equal hand in crafting the screenplay with Baumbach and the two of them must have listened to a lot of jazz while writing Frances' many twisting sentences. She knows a lot about a lot so is uncomfortable with the fact that she is comfortable with so much but still can't settle on anything. Frances is not a underwritten flower to brighten up another man's life, and there's a fun running joke where she keeps calling herself "undateable" after rambling about some piece obscure knowledge. Gerwig plays the loopy lines for every emotional beat while never losing her dissatisfaction center. The key is that Baumbach's other characters took this as a reason to plant themselves down. Frances uses it to roam.
Frances Ha is Baumbach's finest film. By working closely with Gerwig he has honed the cynical tendencies of his literate geniuses without losing the tension that makes their stories worth telling. More and more it seems that the indie version of a fairy tale involves that impossible someone who connects to everyone. Frances isn't impossible, just difficult, and I'm so happy Baumbach and Gerwig kept us along for the trip.
Directed by Noah Baumbach.
Screenplay written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig.
Starring Greta Gerwig.