Saturday, July 05, 2014

Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012)

No permanent address

Amazing how the plot of many a film revolves around New York apartments--C.C. Baxter lent his out to top executives looking for a private venue to conduct their extramarital affairs; L.B. Jeffries was trapped for weeks inside his by a broken leg; Rosemary Woodhouse bought a huge one in the famous Bramford for an unreasonably small sum (turns out the residence's true cost was far too dear).

Can't remember a recent film that made as much fuss over rented New York real estate as Noah Baumbach's latest feature: Frances (Greta Gerwig) and Sophie (Mickey Sumner) are best friends living together in a Prospect Heights apartment in Brooklyn; Sophie moves in with her boyfriend, leaving Frances high and dry and struggling to find new digs. 

That's the premise, really. Baumbach labels each succeeding chapter of the film not with dates or suggestive titles but with addresses, signposts of Frances' odyssey through the city in search of a safe haven or at least reasonably stable nest; it's not her biggest preoccupation throughout but certainly an important one, money being the other most constant/pressing/difficult. 

And the mood's infectious, the sort of desperation anyone who's dealt with the issue can understand. Helped a friend once with her apartment hunting in the city--she ended up dorming, which meant I had to look for my own place to stay, temporarily. At one point had to spend the night in my little junker of a car, parked along one of the curved streets unique to Stuyvesant Town; came back to the spot the next day to find my car had been towed. Instant homelessness! Only in New York.

That much of Frances' story I can immediately relate to; that, and the notion of a friendship that endures all kinds of life events--though not without cost, and not without undergoing its own series of changes. A lasting relationship? A kinder, gentler conclusion? Something new for Baumbach's films and presumably Gerwig's influence, though in an interview Ms. Gerwig reveals that she would have subjected her character to harsher treatment; it was Baumbach who wanted to dial back whatever comeuppance she was fated to experience (p'raps what Ms. Gerwig meant was that she enjoyed an indirect (though not necessarily unprofound) influence--that Baumbach couldn't bring himself to inflict so much cruelty on a character she played). 

Beyond Gerwig's and Sumner's performances as close friends ("we're the same person with different hair," Frances declares and watching them together it isn't hard to believe that--even their occasional irritation with each other comes off as self-hatred, like twins quarreling), beyond the two narrative threads (the breakdown of friendship and the struggle for living space), there isn't much more to recommend. Baumbach shoots in black and white, presumably in homage to Woody Allen's Manhattan (Allen isn't that much more talented visually, but did have Gordon Willis in charge of the camera). He throws in a reference to Leos Carax's Mauvis Sang, with Frances attempting an athletic dance-run a la Dennis Levant (Carax invests irrepressible energy in his images with Levant doing an eyepopping body flip along the way, while the most memorable gesture Gerwig manages is an awkward facedive). He inserts the lovely chime music from Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows--a disastrous idea, as you find yourself noting how much more moving and enchanting the latter is compared to the former. His Frances bears more than a passing resemblance to Delphine in Eric Rohmer's The Green Ray--the same self-centeredness, the same somewhat grating cluelessness--only you miss Rohmer's subtle sense of humor, in some ways more ruthless than Baumbach's. At one point Baumbauch sends his protagonist to Paris of all places, and while the idea of Frances making a less-than-ideal visit to the City of Lights (like Delphine and her equally disastrous vacation) is effectively mined for comedy, the city itself comes off as less than divine, a sort of injection of beauty by default (the city is gorgeous of course, but despite and not because of the black-and-white photography).

Liked this just fine, really I did; just wish Baumbach refrained from referencing other films so much--it's distracting, and keeps reminding me of films I really want to watch. 

First published in Businessworld, 6.26.14

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