Film review: Frances Ha - Gerwig fulfils Greta expectations

4.00

(15)

The New Yorker Noah Baumbach is one of the drollest and smartest film-makers around, but his comedies aren't especially charming, or even that funny. His breakthrough film here was The Squid and the Whale (2005), a terrific portrait of a Brooklyn family imploding in which Jeff Daniels, as the touchy egomaniac professor, gave the performance of his life.

Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh were also good in Margot at the Wedding (2007), though their petulant rivalry and neediness soured the movie into something unwatchable. In his last feature, Greenberg (2010), Baumbach seemed simply to back the wrong horse, training the spotlight on Ben Stiller's self-pitying depressive when it ought to have been on Greta Gerwig's adorable but unconfident single girl.

He has righted that particular wrong by putting Gerwig front and centre in Frances Ha, a comedy of Manhattan manners which, true to form, is highly accomplished without being uproariously funny. Gerwig (Baumbach's girlfriend and co-screenwriter) plays Frances, a young woman caught between the awkwardness of youth and the lengthening shadow of adult responsibility. She's strapped for cash, and fears losing her uncertain foothold at a struggling dance company.

When her boyfriend asks her to move in with him she declines, the reason being she's inseparable from her flatmate-cum-soulmate Sophie (Mickey Sumner, daughter of Sting), her best friend since college; as far as Frances is concerned, "We're the same person, with different hair." The boyfriend retreats to lick his wounds.

Her fond illusions of togetherness are torpedoed, however, when Sophie announces that she's moving to another apartment in TriBeCa. Worse, she's going out with a guy named Patch. This comes as news to Frances, who now realises what Sophie was doing on her mobile phone all day. Has love withered while she wasn't looking? Somewhat forlorn, she finds a room to rent with two affluent layabouts, bedhopping Lev (Adam Driver) and luckless Benji (Michael Zegen), who's supposed to be writing a script for "Gremlins 3". Benji at once admires Frances and believes her to be "undateable".

Some of the best scenes happen between these two. Her: "Do I look old to you?" Him: "No. Yes. How old?" Her: "Older than I am. Older than 27." Him: "No... 27 is old, though." I thought this exchange droll enough to scribble down, though reproduced here it doesn't sound all that. This goes for the entire film; you listen to its unfailingly dry wit with a smile on your face, but you hardly ever laugh.

One major compensation is the sense of a character being presented to us with almost novelistic intimacy. Frances isn't an instantly lovable woman. She has a self-absorption that's very New York, and she can be obtuse (unto deaf) about social nuance. She misses obvious cues. At a dinner party with people she doesn't really know her nervousness inclines her to babble about friends in a slightly boring way – but then she suddenly switches tack to riff on her idea of true love, and it sounds like an impromptu poem.

Gerwig superbly incarnates the contradictions of this insecure woman. She looks rather ungainly for a dancer, though she can execute a perfect headstand at a moment's notice. Running back to a restaurant after a frantic search for an ATM she falls over, then staggers on, bleeding. She also has uncouth table manners, which are possibly less endearing than the scriptwriters believe. No matter. What the film subtly reveals is Frances's inner grace, of less use to a dancer, of course, but of incalculable significance for a human being. After a waitressing gig at her old college she returns late and weary to her bedroom, only to find a young student slumped in the corridor, weeping. What's a stranger to do?

The other notable appeal of the film is its beautiful surface. Shot in black-and-white, it tips its hat to an earlier romance of the city, Woody Allen's 1979 film Manhattan, and to Gordon Willis's peerless photography. That running scene (before Frances takes a flyer) is a fond reminder – and tribute to – Allen himself hurrying along the streets at the film's end, with George Gershwin's lovely music swelling in the background. Baumbach's choice of French film composer Georges Delerue for the upbeat mood is an adequate substitute.

While the film is, at heart, about a kind of loneliness, it doesn't oppress the audience with it, nor does it try to link Frances's emotional troubles with an unhappy upbringing: when she returns home for Christmas to Sacramento, Cal, the mood is one of exuberant Dickensian cheer. Your mum and dad don't always fuck you up. Her impulsive trip to Paris for a jet-lagged weekend is a failure, but again the film skates over it.

Perhaps the black-and-white also brings out a submerged nostalgia for the likes of Frances, who as an impecunious striver is surely a dying breed. Who these days can exist in Manhattan without a high-paying job or family money? Her shiftless flatmates Lev and Benji may dress like students but they still consider hiring a maid for the apartment. As Sophie acidly remarks, "The only people who can afford to be artists in New York are rich."

In real terms, Frances isn't poor; in Manhattan terms, she's one up from a panhandler.The script understands this, and puts a brave face on things. Sometimes, accepting one's limitations can bring contentment, even wisdom. At 27 Frances may worry she's "undateable", but this sweetly melancholic film knows otherwise, right down to the final moments that explain the title. Not funny ha-ha, but in the Baumbach way, funny ha.

Arts and Entertainment

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?