Essential viewing: Frances Ha (2012)


By Natalie Lorimer

Shot entirely in black and white – inspired by a love of French New Wave cinema and the work of Woody Allen – Noah Baumbach presents the life of Frances Halladay in grand cinematic fashion. Frances, a twenty-seven year old dancer living in New York City, finds herself falling behind in life as her friends surge ahead. Pricey apartments and questionable boyfriends strain her relationship with best friend and roommate, Sophie, and leave Frances in limbo. The film follows Frances as she floats between friends’ apartments, her parents’ home in California, her old college, and Paris – a sense of fulfilment often escaping her.

The real power behind Baumbach’s creation lies with the script; penned in collaboration with partner and actress Greta Gerwig. The character of Frances, portrayed by Gerwig herself, is not always likeable. In comparison to her peers, she could arguably be seen as childish and rather co-dependent. Forced to fend for herself in the ever changing environment of New York, she often finds it difficult to weigh up opportunities and make brave decisions. Will she continue her dancing dream or teach her art to children? When she does go out on a limb, reality never quite matches her fantasies – booking a solo trip to Paris on a credit card in hopes of connecting with acquaintances that have no time for her.  It can be easy to view her as a bit of a mooch who relies on friends and family to boost her morale. She is strapped for cash yet makes no effort to find other work alternatives. A sense of self-centredness prevents her from empathising with Sophie, a friend she is shown to love deeply, who is also experiencing her own challenges.

Despite her sometimes frustrating nature, a softer and funnier side to Frances is also explored. She often play-fights with Sophie in the park; something her newer acquaintances disapprove of. In a glorious sequence, we watch her race across crosswalks and skip down streets as David Bowie’s Modern Love carries her along. Sitting across from a crying student in her former college dormitory, offering a gentle smile, we see a side to Frances that is raw. In these little glimpses, masterfully acted by Gerwig, it is much harder to judge her character. We are prompted to wonder if this is the real Frances – the person she always wants to be.

Upon first viewing, Frances Ha provoked emotions that felt particularly overwhelming. Watching the events of Frances’ life unfold, it was easy to disapprove of her choices. The very nature of her character almost inspires a dislike of the film itself. The credits rolled and the disappointment of time wasted felt real. There was annoyance – with Frances, with her peers, with the entire situation presented by Baumbach and wrapped up prettily in an arty monochrome aesthetic. However, it was this strong opposition to the film’s events that prompted a complete reconsideration.

Reflecting on it all, Frances is no stranger. She is an embodiment of the worries most young people carry as they start to find their feet in the world. She is the one friend that sometimes needs that extra push and will remember the favour. She is flawed, just like us all, and there is no crime in it. The film is essential viewing for this reason. Like looking into a mirror, Frances reminds us that we could be exactly like her. We have her fears, her stresses, but we all will deal with them in our own unique way. This harsh reality – a deeper reflection within ourselves – could make us reject Baumbach’s work, or see it as something both visually and emotionally beautiful.