The tagline for a movie is a small blurb of text that articulates the central flux or theme of a film; The Bitch is Back; One Man’s Struggle to Take it Easy; There Can Only Be One. The tagline’s banal cousin is the logline, which briefly summarizes the plot of a film. Both these descriptors are capitalistic in origin, privileging narrative coherence and accordingly, films that are easily described. FRANCES HA (2013) is neither easily described nor narratively transparent. Directed by Noah Baumbach, FRANCES HA is about the difficulty of writing one’s own logline, the difficulty of becoming you when that you is enmeshed in a rudderless, chaotic world of expectations.
FRANCES HA accomplishes this subversion of the norm through a universally legible beginning. Frances (Greta Gerwig), a 27 year old (amateur) dancer, lives in Brooklyn with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Their friendship is emotional, honest, intimate: a kind of homonormative bliss closely aligned with romance, but distinctively purer. In a childlike daze, they spend days frolicking through central park and late nights discussing the folly of men. In their limited time apart, Frances works part-time as a dancer, occasionally copulating with men she cares little for. Sophie has a boyfriend too, but Frances assumes that Sophie is as unconcerned with romantic love as she is. This haphazard approach defines everything Frances does: from casually discarding relationships, squandering money, and consistently embarrassing herself in public, Frances’ ID and EGO are entirely out of touch. Frances takes life so unseriously that she fails to notice, right under her nose, that Sophie is moving on. Sophie has decided to take an apartment in Tribeca, ascending a bourgeois ladder that Frances has neither concern nor the resources for.
FRANCES HA, in its own slight, inert way, covers a rough patch in Frances’ life, a time when she realized that at 27, she had accomplished little to be proud of. She possesses no normative hallmarks of success: a stable job, relationship or apartment. Without capital, without love, and devoid of determination, Frances wallows and stumbles. At face value, the film is about what Frances does without Sophie’s best friendship. Implicitly, it is about Frances’ slow, painful cognizance of her own inauspicious frivolity. Without the tacit approval of Sophie, Frances loses the only voice in her life justifying her absence of determination. This film, in its own clandestine, unassuming way, is about heartbreak, a catastrophic loss of love. Heartbreak leads us to not only mourn the loss of a major relationship, but to suffer, as we struggle to survive life without the counterpoised influence of a dualistic love, our Gemini twin.
While this sounds relentlessly bleak, the film is more matter-of-fact. Frances’ optimistic naiveté is not a total embarrassment, more a casual weakness. She pronounces herself “undateable”, but her coy smile, subtle beauty and honest demeanor signal her otherwise in the eyes of the audience. Co-written by Baumbach and Gerwig, the dialogue has a very lived-in feel, much like Richard Linklater’s BEFORE trilogy. Gerwig is a priceless asset. Her lackadaisical nature remains charming, even amidst her most cringe-worthy decisions and conversations. The film is shot in black and white, a decision which easily could have been seen as a ploy to drum up nostalgia or prestige. Instead, this perfectly complements the film’s intimate, scaled-down production and general humility, as well as its Truffaut references and classic 80’s soundtrack.
The film is effectively a modern bildungsroman for the hipster generation; the cast is predominantly comprised of Williamsburg-y hipsters whose unpaid internships and trust funds have enabled an arrested development. Frances’ identity crisis is timeless, but the conditions of her self-delusion are entirely contemporary. Frances’ middle-classness is a silent subject of the film. She manages rent checks whilst unemployed. She calls herself poor, only to be called out by her roommate, her very roommate who is writing an unsalable, overlong script for GREMLINS 3. She blows tax refunds on dinners with cute boys, unable to recall months prior, when her fiscal irresponsibility indirectly ended her best friendship. Implicitly, Frances’ financial blanket is a hindrance, forestalling her ability to hit rock bottom and make a decisive change. It is only when she reunites with Sophie months later and witnesses their shared sense of loss that Frances able to finally stake hold of her future.
While in some ways the film is about the necessity (inevitability) of growing up, Frances’ naiveté is never fully castigated. Her delayed development is excusable, because it is authentic. Networking is unpleasant, Sophie is in a problematic relationship, and being an artist is a painful path of virtuosity. All these expectations that Frances toys with are the fallout of a dominant culture. Frances doesn’t seem the type to own property, produce a nuclear family, or even become a virtuoso: and that is alright. It is only envy that prevents her to come to terms with adulthood.
In one particularly telling sequence, Frances’ lovely, stressless visit home to Sacramento is juxtaposed with a ludicrous trip to Paris she takes. The trip is implicitly motivated by an embarrassing conversation she has while stoned at a dinner party. Imagining adulthood to revolve around jet-setting and frivolous expenditures, she charges a plane ticket to her credit card and manages to sleep through the entire trip because of jetlag. These kinds of compulsory demonstrations of adulthood are what hold Frances back; a weekend trip to Paris is better as an anecdote than in practice. Instead of siding with envy, she must rediscover pride as a means to thrive. She learns this the hard way when she receives a random call from Sophie while in Paris. After months of separation, Sophie wants to say goodbye before moving to Japan. Frances’ foolish trip has prevented her from saying goodbye properly, and leads her to sound like a liar and/or a fool on the phone, conspicuously showing off. Months later they do reunite unexpectedly at Vassar, their alma mater, and later again at Frances’ dance performance; this sense of coincidence is both the film, and Frances’ raison d’etre. For those of us pained by normative lifestyles, there is a beauty to the ebb and flow of life, as embracing unexpected changes is the only, the best, the happiest way to live.