Dear friends and readers,
The last time I saw Greta Gerwig was in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress; an upper class sentimental fantasy set in a never-never land-college, she kept it alive by her ability to seem so real; as Frances Ha began I recognized her immediately, and although I’ve never seen a Noah Baumbach film before, I knew what was coming would differ from mainstream films — and not simply because it’s in black-and-white — though given Josh Whedon’s recent use of it maybe it’s a new “in thing. Her acting style allows for a depth of feeling and thought continually that does not seem virtuoso acting; she’s not at all conventionally pretty; I came to the conclusion she was not making it because she’s too tall, clumsy, not thin, her hair a mess, her nose large and bony and she reveals herself too much, is somehow too warm, too eager, not dressed right.
What is she not making? a career as a professional (salaried) career in the upper echelons in her case, the dancing world that’s what. Nor does she hold onto friends or want lovers (or a husband it seems, at least no good husband material addresses her). As in life, no one ever explains to Frances why she is not chosen to become part of the company; she is praised to the hilt by her mentor and then told she won’t be needed at all for the Christmas season. As the film opens, she refuses to go live with a boyfriend who is adopting two kittens as a pressure device (a family responsibility for them) to get her to. She cites her obligation to her roommate and best friend, Sophie (Mickey Summer), who in the next few minutes shows no compunction about deserting Frances for a place in a flat in Tribeca because she’s always wanted to live there.
Despite all rumors, reviews and promotional stills to the contrary (like the one directly above), this is not a film about female friendship. Almost immediately after the opening Sophie deserts Frances, on the rare couple of face-to-face meetings Sophie is embarrassed by (and most people are) Frances and wants her either to be different or go away; and at the conclusion of the film Sophie shows up to unburden herself again, claiming how unhappy she is with her fiance, telling of how she hates living in Japan, fighting with Him directly in front of Frances, only to desert the next morning and return to Him. True, the final breakup with Sophie driving away fast to this successful young man with the good job and promise of marriage (but probably many another pregnancy to be endured, and miscarriages are not to be depended upon), makes Frances accept the one job offer she has during the film: to be a receptionist in the office from which the dance company is run. Had the film ended there, it would have been realistic enough to be effective. Time to face reality. She is no longer in college and summer jobs as counsellors meant for girls 5 years younger than her won’t do. She must compromise, get enough money to pay if not for an apartment of her own, a space in one. Dissolve. Credits.
Alas it doesn’t. We then get this utterly improbable fantasy of her as magical choreographer; all the characters in the film we’ve seen are in an auditorium watching a wondrous (we are to feel) ballet and applaud her and it tremendously. Everyone suddenly has cooperated with her, done her bidding — danced what she wanted, where, made up costumes for her. Sat there. The 21st century equivalent of the heroine princess of 17th century romances. Well. She’s just possibly on her way to The Career, at any rate fulfilling her Vocation; and she’s not got just a space, but a fine new apartment in Washington Heights, and the young man who regarded her as fun to talk to as long as she paid her part of the rent for the weeks agreed upon, suddenly wants to go out with her. Matchpoint won, acceptance, admiration, money, love … Spare me. It’s endurable only because it’s done so fast, in soft focus, through montage and without much dialogue. Tacked on.
This film is addressed to today’s 20-30 year old middle class audience, especially women probably, who it seems still harbor fantasies and have instilled norms they expect to work them miracles and most of the time don’t any more (never did): remember today’s unemployment rate, think of the kind of jobs young people who’ve graduated college (paid a lot) often end up with. The film is a slow hit — it’s been in our local semi-artsy movie-house for weeks. I think of Sarah Franklin’s My Brilliant Career which ends with the heroine having no place to go to to fulfill herself in.
The film is also somewhat marred by the fantasy element that dominates Girls and many another film: the ease with which upper class 20-year olds live exciting super-socialized arty lives in Manhattan and other world cities. Frances is 27 — the age of old maid-hood in Austen films. I did not spot any African-American people in this film. No Spanish people either. Did I say it purported to give us random shots of New York City? So the fantasy ought to be obvious. The film is a fable and the depiction of this milieu kept exaggerated; we never see the lawyer at the dinner table who takes Frances seriously at work. Real world jobs are gotten by a few of the males but we never see what they are doing, how they got them, why they seem to have to move to places like Japan. Everyone has rich parents as does Frances — she visits a Father-Knows-Best pair of parents for Christmas in a fantasy suburbia in California where families are look happy and well-adjusted (I glimpsed a sister with a husband and children, all well-dressed).
Rather we are most of the time presented with this glittery (black-and-white dream) ideal city life people have in their heads they are not part of (and long for) that we watch Frances failing to become part of.
One person (doubtless a great performer and cool networker herself) wrote about the film as about a psychopath: she was that horrified by Frances’s sudden frankness about her miseries in public and her social awkwardness. The reviewer not only missed the point, she watched the film without for a moment realizing it was sending people like her up, displaying them like unconscious fish in a bowl.
What makes one stay for the whole of the film is puzzling, for a couple of times I had to resist the impulse to turn to Izzy and suggest we leave. Why? The nuances of the scenes, the believable dialogues kept me on the edge of uncomfortable pain for her; the film asks you to bond with a person who’s gauche, over-reacts, makes bad impulsive decisions; those who call her an “endearing underachiever” are distancing themselves into her parents. I know I’m Downton Abbey obsessed but I can’t resist saying here we have the New York indie equivalent of Lady Edith Crawley. For those with only a passing acquaintance with this serial drama, she’s the ugly 2nd sister, the one seduced by deformity, rawly humiliated at the altar. Both of them even have a big nose; both wear their hearts on their sleeves (tell too much), only when hurt because of this Lady Edith gets back while when someone spits in Frances’s face she says it’s raining. Both get stood up repeatedly, only Frances professes to believe the lies she’s told, and Frances is not permitted openly to lose it ever, as Edith does here:
At moments (when she’s on the phone trying to get people to meet with her), Frances made me realize the name Crawley is uncomfortably close to crawling … At last I understood why Edith is scapegoated.
Art to have an effect on us must not be coercive; it must seduce. Social popular art must jolly us along. Movies present themselves most of the time as about the make-believe “we” not the real “I.” Insofar as this film comes close to that “I,” it’s worth the $8 and time-spent. My favorite line: Frances says to someone they must not go to a movie in the middle of the day. That’s just giving up altogether. That’s why I often tell myself. No I must do my “work” in the middle of the day, except that I did go to this movie with Yvette at 2:30. I’m getting old, giving in, my excuse my Admiral is not up to making supper for us while I’m gone. So you see I’m a victim of this killing ambition for dream-lives that don’t exist too, or to be franker, I wanted one I didn’t seriously believe I could make because (I know now) I didn’t know how to, and so I never did, but have not yet divested myself of its habits of thoughts.
See Izzy’s similar perspective — no we did not consult before we wrote.