I know I’ve quoted it here before, but one of my favourite lines of film criticism is David Thomson’s comment about Howard Hawks, that it’s the principle of Hawks’ cinema “that men are more expressive rolling a cigarette than saving the world.” He goes on to say “that Hawks attends to such small things because he is the greatest optimist that the cinema has produced,” and that “the optimism comes out of a knowledge of failure and is based on the virtues and warmth in people that go hand-in-hand with their shortcomings.” Depending on your view of cinema, or of Hawks, you might not think that sounds like much, at least not compared to saving the world, and indeed it doesn’t, if you value “spectacle” and “escaping from your troubles” and the other heavy-welded components of the Hollywood brand above all other considerations. But is there a greater form of pessimism, I wonder, than submitting to an endless stream of coldly peril-ridden mythologies?
Thomson’s line came back to me as I watched Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, one of the year’s most optimistic films – in the sense laid out above – and one of its most enchanting. Broader similarities with Hawks might not be self-evident, although it does provoke the thought that modern-day New York as occupied by young “arty” types – the territory of Lena Dunham’s Girls (with which the film shares a key cast member) and of a thousand low-budget movies – might now constitute a sort of genre framework in the way that westerns and private eyes once did. That is, whether or not what we’re watching is particularly representative of any documentable reality, it provides a wonderfully fertile framework in which to plot human interactions. I like Girls very much, but Baumbach’s work in Frances Ha is so subtle and skillful, it almost makes that show, and his own previous work, look heavy-handed (it also solidifies my reservations about Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, which I wrote about here two weeks ago).
Much of the credit certainly belongs to the lead actress Greta Gerwig, who wrote the film with Baumbach, and somewhere into the line entered into a much-covered relationship with him. Her Frances is 27 years old, poor, but as a friend points out, not really poor – although her actual income may be minimal, the supplementary momentum of favours, borrowed apartments, maxed-out credit cards and so forth still has a while to run. As the film begins, she’s sharing an apartment with her best friend Sophie, delighting in the easy familiarity of their relationship, and imagining it might continue indefinitely. But Sophie suddenly moves out, and then acquires a serious boyfriend, and her life heads off on a trajectory which threatens to exclude Frances altogether; Frances falters personally, and professionally (she’s trying to make it as a dancer), and enters what seems capable of becoming a serious downward spiral.
Weekend in Paris
The film proceeds through a gentle, often almost subliminal series of displacements and shifts, of mood and relationships and emotional structures. Its centerpiece, perhaps, is Frances’ weekend in Paris – a wickedly disastrous experience, so beautifully rendered it could constitute a short film in itself, while avoiding all sense of a calculated set-piece (even though it is that). But throughout, Baumbach avoids the over-emphatic rhythms that often mark even better films. Writing about a central dinner scene in Before Midnight, I noted how “the dialogue is all nicely spaced and distributed, with none of the digressions and dead zones of real social intercourse: everyone talks entirely in comic or metaphysical zingers (or both).” Baumbach may well have been subject to similar limitations in the past, but seldom here.
For another point of reference, Frances Ha has a dinner scene too, where Frances bemuses her hosts with her incoherent digressions. As I saw it during the weekend when The Heat was the number one film, I couldn’t help thinking how such a scene would play out in a Melissa McCarthy film, the prevailing mood shattered by imaginative obscenities and knowingly grotesque sexual innuendos. It might be funny, but it wouldn’t reveal a thing about character, and could never allow the scene’s surprising conclusion, where Frances suddenly shifts into an oddly beautiful reverie about love, all but taking away the breath of her previously skeptical hosts. Her imagery in that scene sets up a key moment toward the end, in a way that supports a theme of growth and adaptation – Frances achieves, if only in passing, her romantic dream, but in a context, and bearing a meaning, more tempered and complex than she could previously have imagined.
In addition to the trip to Paris, the film has numerous references to the French new wave, and to Francois Truffaut in particular – we glimpse a poster for one of his films, and his key actor Jean-Pierre Leaud gets a mention; Baumbach shoots it all in gorgeous black and white (which also brings some of Woody Allen’s peak-period comedies to mind at times). I don’t know whether Baumbach finds these links a specific source of artistic strength, but if nothing else they place Frances Ha in a tradition of eternally provocative and fulfilling cinema, created out of relative poverty of means, ventilated by a rejection of deadening conventions.
Part of that tradition was always its greater sexual frankness, but funnily enough, Baumbach keeps things remarkably decorous in that respect: there’s a certain amount of sex, but no hint of any on screen – indeed, this absence (and the accompanying suggestion that Frances may be fundamentally undateable) is key to the film’s effect. Although it’s certainly a contemporary movie, there’s something rather out-of-time to this courtliness (judged as anthropology, it might be a flaw that smartphones aren’t as prominent as they should be, not that they’re absent), which adds to that sense of genre filmmaking, ably weaving reality and myth.
The film, then, seems to me a considerable delight, and confirms all the buzz about Gerwig as the truest heir to classic Hollywood – only a moderate beauty by magazine cover standards, but with a beyond-beguiling resourcefulness that might cause you to redefine your standards in such things. Frances Ha ought to be the talk of this supposedly film-loving city, but when I went with my wife to see it at 5 pm on the second Sunday of its release, there were only three other people in the place. The number one picture, as I mentioned, was The Heat, which at least by all accounts isn’t a film about saving the world, but nevertheless may constitute another step closer to destroying it, culturally speaking. What can you do, except close with an ambiguous ha?