Monday, May 27, 2013

REVIEW: Frances Ha (2013)

Given that auteur theory has long since won the war, if not every battle, it's good to give due credit to the role that actors play in collaborative filmmaking.  Auteurist staples like 8 1/2 and Pierrot le fou are essentially films set inside their makers' heads, but owe a tremendous amount of their universality to the performers, who provide a vital link between the man behind the camera and the outside world.  So it's significant that Noah Baumbach, who directed the best autobiographical film of the last decade before falling into a relative slump, found a partner in actress Greta Gerwig.  In Baumbach's previous film, Greenberg, Gerwig (not in the title role) presented a lackadaisical sweetness that put the snark and self-destructive pretension of the hero in relief.  And Frances Ha, for which she co-wrote the screenplay, is her film at least as much as it is his: a union between actress and director that has yielded some of the best results for both.

The summary that IFC, the film's distributor, has kindly posted on IMDb says that it's about a young woman who "throws herself headlong into her dreams."  Well, that's one way of looking at it.  The film is more of an observational shaggy dog story, as Frances (Gerwig) bounces from living space to living space, never able to plant roots anywhere as her friends move on and her lack of direction (and gainful employment) leaves her sputtering behind.  Set amongst the terminally hip, it's very much the same milieu that Lena Dunham taps for Girls, and like that lightning-rod HBO series, Frances Ha is probably not immune to the criticism that it's as self-involved as its characters. But the perspective it maintains is outward-facing and emotionally-attuned (hipsters are people too), and the looseness of structure, which a minority of critics have singled out as a flaw, is actually one of its most sincere saving graces.  Being 27 is nothing if not a series of plans that don't work out, conversations that settle nothing, and trips that end right back at the beginning, and the film captures it with sympathy and humor.  "I don't know if I believe everything I'm saying" is definitely a line of dialogue for our time, and it's vital that Gerwig delivers it without self-awareness.

As for Baumbach, this is easily his most satisfying work since The Squid and the Whale.  As a writer and a director, he understands the way small moments can replace big, "finalizing" climaxes, which is perhaps the best trait of his cinema.  He gives Frances Ha plenty of cinephile cred as well, paying homage to the French New Wave by raiding his Georges Delerue record collection and shooting in black and white, if only because it's easy to forget how beautiful the city looks if you only see it in color.  It's a good sign for 27-year-olds when a film can traffic largely in embarrassment and thwarted desires but still finish on a positive note without feeling forced, or relying (too much) on patently cinematic twists.  If this is indeed a "minor" film (and it is), let it be said that minor triumphs are something else that deserve their dues.  They're how we get by.

4 out of 5 stars.

Frances Ha is currently in theaters, probably in your small local arthouse with broken seats.