In the last fifteen years, many films have been made that strain to appeal to the ‘alternative mainstream’. David Fincher’s Fight Club strains to appeal to those who are “so sick of all the consumerist lies propagated by institutions, man”. Jason Reitman’s Juno strains to appeal to those who clumsily try to insert references to their own cleverness into everyday conversation, without any hint of irony or self-deprecation. 500 Days of Summer strains to appeal to those whose apparent immersion into hipster culture goes as far as knowing about ‘The Smiths’, and that’s about it.
I probably fit very neatly into these three sects of pseudo-intellectual, faux-hipster society. I might be some warped Uncle Tom figure. Perhaps I dislike these films because I hate most in others what I see in myself. So such films in the studio-independent oeuvre – also including Little Miss Sunshine, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and any other film with the word ‘sunshine’ in the title – are not for me. These movies are for the people who blindly devour the nauseatingly counter-culture philosophy of Chuck Palahniuk (come on now, has anyone called ‘Chuck’ ever had anything valid to say about society? The first two things I think of when I hear the word Chuck are Chuck Norris and chuck steak). These are the sort of people who say they only listen to music that is Pitchfork-approved, but have never heard of Mark E. Smith or Stephen Malkmus. These are the people who only drink PBR, but don’t know what ‘PBR’ stands for.
This review is probably the most pretentious and self-aggrandising thing I’ve ever written. I intend to make this review pretentious and self-aggrandising in an ironic way, which would ironically make this review seem more pretentious and self-aggrandising. It is a vicious cycle. If I don’t come across as self-deprecating, then I give you permission to stab me with a Pitchfork or drown me in the mainstream.
Every so often, a film comes along that does not want to have its cake and eat it too; a film that does not try to appease an alternative market and a mainstream market simultaneously; a film that genuinely tries to depict an alternative subculture without worrying that mainstream audiences won’t ‘get it’. Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha is one of these films. Baumbach and his fellow screenwriter Greta Gerwig, who also plays the eponymous Frances, are not afraid to reference Jean-Pierre Leaud or the New Sincerity movement, even in a self-effacing way. Frances Ha is not afraid to alienate the mainstream film viewer.
Frances Ha is far from flawless. In fact, its flaws are easier to pin down than its strengths. For a film that is just over 80 minutes, it drags in places. This is because some sequences are too short and thus feel disposable, even though they are essential to the development of Frances’ character. The recurring scenes between Frances and her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) seem fleeting and thus unsubstantial, thus making the film feel overlong. In the last fifteen minutes, there are a number of times when the film sets up a climactic denouement, but keeps on going. This was especially cloying since the film’s end felt overdone and unrealistic. Without wanting to spoil the film’s conclusion, Frances comes across sudden success as a choreographer, even though she has been portrayed as a lethargic and unlucky character throughout the film.
However, the film’s ostensible flaws often give birth to the film’s greatest strengths. Baumbach and Gerwig never seem assured of where the film is going, evidenced by the ephemeral sequences and the confused, muddled attempts at reaching a climax. Yet this degree of spontaneity is refreshing, ensuring that Frances Ha is memorably, erratically unpredictable. Cinematographer Sam Levy used a Canon 5D camera with a small image sensor to shoot the film, and the footage was converted to black-and-white and cropped in post-production. Consequently, many of the shots are grainy, have a zigzagging blur across the frame, and the striking contrast between black and white that the best black-and-white films have is absent. However, this bestows upon the film a grubby naturalism that echoes the perennial failings in Frances’ life – failings that we can all relate to.
Frances Ha is, in a way, mumblecore done well. The film often displays the bourgeois, self-referential philosophy of mumblecore: it is a film about privileged White people living in New York City who eat, drink, smoke, chat and try to evade work. However, Frances Ha is never false. It is never pretentious. It never thinks it’s smarter than it is. Unlike the aforementioned films, Frances Ha is self-assured in the knowledge that this film is not going to appeal to everyone. Unlike many ignominiously monotonous mumblecore films, Frances Ha has very strong basis in character. Frances is a character who is acerbically self-aware yet likeably naive, wittily clever yet ignorant to the world around her. She suffers from a form of neo-tragic social ostracism, lost in some of the world’s greatest cities – New York and Paris – as she struggles to revitalise her fading relationships. Greta Gerwig hits every one of these notes perfectly, exhibiting broad comedy and juvenile disillusionment often in the one scene.
The film is also hilarious, which is why it is so enjoyable. The film is, of course, verbally funny – the peppering of quick-witted dialogue throughout is wonderful, as the characters discuss trivial issues of culture and pop culture. However, Frances Ha is also visually funny, using physical comedy and a variety of cutaways to elicit some unexpected mirth.
Yet the film hit me very profoundly as well, in an almost intangible manner. This is because Frances Ha manages to evoke both the life I want for myself, and the life I will probably lead if I strive for the life I want to have. The life I want to live is one where I can pursue some sort of art while living in small studio apartments in New York. The life I will probably lead if I aim for this is a sexless, lonely existence, as I become increasingly deluded by the thought that reading Jean Baudrillard, listening to ‘Godspeed You! Black Emperor’ and watching Bela Tarr films all day is somehow a profession.
I’ve never been a big fan of the milquetoast mumblecore of Noah Baumbach. I have never hated his films, though – unlike Armond White, who once called for his retroactive abortion. But I love Frances Ha and its French New Wave sensibilities, blending style with substance in a highly poignant and entertaining fashion.
In 1991, Richard Linklater made his masterpiece, Slacker: a film consisting of rapid vignettes about unemployed ‘slackers’ and the inconsequential conversations they have. Slacker is the film that defined Generation X, even though Linklater himself is a baby boomer. Perhaps his distance from Generation X prompted his ability to explore the generation with such acuity. Likewise, Noah Baumbach is a Generation X-er. Despite this, he has possibly made the quintessential film about Generation Y, and to be honest, the generations in Slacker and Frances Ha don’t seem that different.