The Review: In a world where there’s a paucity of decent female roles – seemingly around one per film if you’re lucky – it’s no surprise that the most talented young actresses and writers are turning out to be one and the same. The likes of Lena Dunham and Greta Gerwig are breaking out of the mumblecore and into the mainstream, and Gerwig has been able to leverage her success to be able to strike a balance between the mainstream and retaining her roots. She’s also made a few collaborations with fellow indie filmmaker Noah Baumbach, and their latest joint effort sees him directing, her acting and the pair scripting in the tale of a modern dancer of moderate ability attempting to make her big break in New York City.
Gerwig’s own trajectory may still be resolutely upwards, but Frances Halladay is struggling to keep on an even keel. Her dancing abilities, or lack thereof, have seen her opportunities severely limited with her dance company. Her relationship is going nowhere, so she passes up the chance to move in with her boyfriend to stay rooming with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner). When Sophie moves out anyway, Frances’ already shaky existence is sent spiralling across a number of different lives and friends’ couches or spare rooms – the passage of time indicated by black and white intertitles indicating each time Frances has to change abode by acting as change of address cards – and attempts to make sense of her life as it appears to be adhering closely to the principles of Murphy’s Law (if anything can go wrong, it will).
Let’s make it clear at this point: Gerwig here is very much a mix of the typical mumblecore downer, but with an almost bipolar flipside of the energy and relentless cheeriness of a manic pixie dream girl (without the associated annoying tweeness) and a kooky clumsiness that helps her to remain endearing in the face of repeated adversity. I say endearing, but if that sounds as appealing as rinsing your head in gravel then Frances Ha is not the film for you. Do not pass go, do not collect £200 and do not part with 86 minutes of your life that you’ll spend a week moaning you’ll never get back. For those more open to Gerwig’s deliberate charms, this is one of her most appealing on screen performances, even as Frances’ life choices fly in the face of common sense or practicality. Gerwig can light up the screen when she puts her mind to it, and a decent mix of her own dialogue and the joyful vigour with which she attempts to deflect misery and cling to the few things in life she holds dear make Frances’ own arc a relatable one for anyone who’s struggled with the pre-middle aged ennui caused by life heading in the wrong direction.
To what extent you’ll enjoy the rest of Frances Ha will depend entirely on the way you live your life. The cast is filled out with characters who feel normal for New York – but people who you may recognise more from fiction than your own existence – and Frances’ varied interactions with the varied levels of the class system give the film a decent amount of depth; the fact that some of these characters are likeable and just as sympathetic as Frances might even come as a slight surprise, but a welcome one. If you’re a fan of the French new wave, then you’ll quite likely enjoy the homages that Baumbach has made, even the title being a reference to a Jean-Luc Godard work, and Frances even takes a fruitless trip to Paris to ram the point home. Baumbach even delivers homages to French homages to the French new wave, with Frances running down a road to the sounds of David Bowie’s Modern Love a lift from Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang. If like me you’re an uncultured slob and still think Francois Truffaut was just the French guy from Close Encounters, then Baumbach’s layers and setting need to work on their own terms and they don’t always, the occasional stilted conversation tipping too far away from the naturalism and the ending feeling too neat and bow-wrapped. None of it detracts from Gerwig too much, and fame, fortune and a bright future remains more likely for Gerwig than it would seem for her characters.
Why see it at the cinema: The grainy, monochromatic visuals may not sell either New York or Paris to their best effect but Baumbach makes reasonable use of the scenery. See it with a middle class crowd and there’ll be enough knowing titters to make the collective audience experience worthwhile.
What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong language and sex references. That amounts to about two and a half dozen f-words and one discussion between the two female leads about awkward sex. Anyone under 15 isn’t going to relate to the characters and their first world problems anyway, so the rating is more of an issue if an average of one swear word every three minutes is likely to offend.
My cinema experience: Picturehouse Cinemas have a regular Sunday morning free members’ preview series, and it’s not often I can get over as I have other Sunday morning commitments. On this occasion, I just about managed to squeak away from those in time to make the dash to the Abbeygate in Bury St Edmunds. I think I was the last person there, so I let myself in (having booked my ticket over the phone the previous day; the phone line had a computer glitch but I got an e-mail confirmation with an e-ticket, all very civilised). The washed out black and white did make it a slight struggle to find my seat, but thankfully the reclining comfort and top notch projection and sound of the Abbeygate’s smaller screen made it all worthwhile. Just a shame it was too early for a glass of wine…
The Score: 7/10