Frances Ha (2012)

Frances Ha is Inside Llewyn Davis with a cuter star and a happy ending.

Frances, played by writer Greta Gerwig, may not have a cat, but she’s a struggling artist in New York City. After accidentally dumping her boyfriend with a Freudian slip — He wants to move in together. She doesn’t. — and after her roommate and best friend announces she’s moving in with her fiancee, Frances, like Llewyn, finds herself adrift. She quickly finds another situation with a pair of rich hipsters, but it’s 1250 dollars a month. What’s more, like Llewyn Davis, Frances, an aspiring dancer, is not going to conquer the world overnight. She’s 27. Her friends are all getting married or moving on with their careers. She’s still a apprentice dancer with a small dance company. Then she isn’t. The director of the company likes Frances, but doesn’t quite think she has enough talent.

Unlike Llewyn Davis, who really doesn’t seem to like being a folk singer very much, Frances actually likes being a dancer. She may not be an overwhelming talent, but, she loves to move for the sake of moving. When asked by a benefactor to play a folk song, Llewyn Davis bursts into spasms of rage. I do not perform on demand like a circus monkey, he said. When asked by her roommates to dance, Frances is overjoyed. She’ll dance anytime, anywhere, for anybody. There’s a 20 second stretch towards the halfway mark that’s a sheer joy to watch. Frances is running along Catherine Street in Chinatown to the sound of David Bowie’s Modern Love. Greta Gerwig is a tall, lanky actress who seems to bounce when she walks. When she runs, she almost seems to fly. Just about the only movie I can think of that’s ever captured youthful energy and the sheer joy of being physical quite so well is Breaking Away with Dennis Christopher. Like Dennis Christopher’s 19 year old bicycle racer coasting through the Indiana woods, running a red light, or racing a truck along the Interstate, Frances knows that what makes you free is to occupy your own body.

Frances Ha is worth watching for those 20 seconds alone.

(Just a note: Frances Ha running through Chinatown to the sound of “Modern Love” has been almost entirely copied from a 1986 French film by Leos Carax called Mauvais Sang. Shame on you Noah Baumbach.)

There’s also the gorgeous black and white photography. I don’t know if Frances Ha was shot on digital or with old film stock, but every frame looks beautiful. Greta Gerwig is not only an appealing actress and a talented writer, she’s director Noah Baumbach’s girlfriend. The camera loves her. I’ve seen Greta Gerwig interviewed on television, and, how best to put it, she’s cute both nothing special. But Frances Ha allows us to look at her through the eyes of her quite obviously smitten boyfriend, one who’s also a brilliant cinematographer. Greta Gerwig is OK. I dare anybody, male or female, not to fall in love with Frances in the first 20 minutes of the film.

I said male or female because Frances, while straight, has a long term platonic love affair with her roommate and fellow Vassar grad Sophie. They talk so much about being lesbians not having sex it serves to obscure whether or not they really do have any romantic feeling for each other. People talk so as not to understand. But it’s clear that Frances and Sophie feel deeply for each other. Indeed, Frances getting fired at her dance studio and Sophie going off to Japan with her rich boyfriend — a Goldman Sachs banker — is the double hammer blow that strips her Frances of her youthful identity.

Since Frances is in her late 20s, a loss of identity is expressed as anxiety over aging.

“Are you older than Sophie?” a passive aggressive little yuppie hipster chick asks.

“We went to college together,” Frances responds. “But I’m a few months older.”

“I mean a lot older,” her antagonist says. “You look much older. You have an old face. Only you’re less grown up.”

Ouch. We never quite understand why this other woman feels so much passive aggressive hostility towards Frances, but it’s a perfect expression of late 20s angst in only a few lines of dialogue. Frances is a young, beautiful, vibrant woman, but she feels old. She even asks her room mate if she looks old. Well, he says, 27 is old. But it’s not. Frances isn’t worried about slowing down physically. She’s worried that her social status isn’t where it should be. She’s worried that, as she pushes 30, she should be further along in her career than she is. Late 20s angst is all about your social body versus your physical body, about how your social body, economic worries, routine, friends, competition for status makes you view your physical body through a distorted lens, makes you feel old when you’re young, makes you long to fit in when you really just can’t.

That’s another thing Frances has in common with Llewyn Davis. They both, at times, want to fit in, but know, deep down inside, that they can’t. Inside Llewyn Davis is a much angrier movie. The physical, in Inside Llewyn Davis, is full of wrath. A blizzard in Chicago, an unwanted pregnancy, a strange “well-dressed man” coming out of the shadows and beating Llewyn to a pulp, the only refuge outside of society is what you create. That’s what dooms Llewyn Davis to what’s almost certainly going to be a lifetime of unhappiness. Llewyn Davis has vibrant, rebellious soul but he doesn’t have the talent to make it known and it only expresses itself at odd moments, a cat that keeps escaping, odd spasms of rage that rip through the phony world of early 1960s folk music, a self-destructive downward spiral.

Frances is just as much an unintentional rebel as Llewyn Davis, but she’s a happier, more likeable person. Llewyn’s rebellion is always bitter. His anger makes him an outcast. For Frances, on the other hand, it’s her joy in living that makes her, if not exactly an outcast, then at least a bit of a weirdo who doesn’t quite fit into the world of passive aggressive New York hipsterdom. She challenges a friend to a “play fight,” and almost knocks her out. She dangles herself over the subway platform and almost touches the third rail. She hilariously derails the conversation at a dinner party full of stuffy WASPs by talking about her perfect romance.

“I’m really stoned, aren’t I,” she says as she realizes people are looking at her curiously.

I don’t know if Llewyn Davis’s anger makes Inside Llewyn Davis a better movie. But I do know that the one thing I didn’t like about Frances Ha was the happy ending. I suppose it’s disappointment that even so likeable a misfit like Frances decides to make her compromise with the adult world, to accept an offer of a day job while working on being a choreographer in her spare time. Her first production goes well. Her friends show up, drink wine, and applaud. The director who fired her from her apprenticeship, the one who gave her the office job, tells her she liked it. You get the sense she did.

But we’re disappointed. Inside Llewyn Davis ends with the appearance of a young Bob Dylan. We know the 1960s are coming. That rebellious anger just may amount to something after all. If Llewyn Davis hangs on maybe he can go on to protest the Vietnam War or register voters in the south, or at least sing for people who register voters in the south. Frances Ha ends, on the other hand, with Frances becoming just another journeyman (or woman) culture worker in hipster New York. She’ll go to parties. She’ll get into debates about Girls and Breaking Bad, She’ll get married, have kids, hire a nanny, and buy her food at the Park Slope Food Coop.

Couldn’t she have occupied Zuccotti Park instead?

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6 comments

  1. This is a very interesting piece, a comparison that I never contemplated. These were two of my favourite films in recent times in their own contrasting tales, but I guess they do relate quite well. However, I believe that France’s energy would eventually mount to something, that positivity is rare, and Davis is too bitter to even care if he has a satisfying life or not. Who knows? Cool work!

    1. True. Frances has the abililty to be a real artist. Llewyn should probably get a job on Wall Street.

      1. Llewyn should be a milk bar clerk!

        1. Pet shop owner

  2. […] the best film I’ve ever seen about the miseries of young-adulthood. Part The Graduate, part Frances Ha, part mumblecore, it’s so good I almost hated it for being so good. Why couldn’t I have […]

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