As surely as any Esther Williams or Jackie Chan flick, “Frances Ha” (2013) sells the distinctive screen appeal of its star, Greta Gerwig. You will either buy in or you won’t, but if you resist the pitch, it’s certainly not for lack of effort by the sales force.
Gerwig is Frances Ha (short for something that I won’t spoil), a 27 year-old aspiring ballet dancer in New York, an unforgiving place whose Bloomberg economy is not hospitable to aspiring dancers. Especially dancers as obviously deficient on talent as Frances. Frances understands this, but just barely manages to suppress the knowledge, devoting herself instead to living a wide-eyed fantasy where she can remain a semi-broke woman-child who prances giddily around the Big Apple streets, riding one impulse wave to the next, just hanging out with friends in a world of beautiful responsibility-free stasis.
Frances is another in a long line of manic free spirits so beloved by American indie directors and audiences. She is a precious quirky jewel immersed in a narrative of self-discovery, a delicate quirky flower bending but not breaking in a harsh wind, singing her off-key quirky song to a world where people have the time to listen, and did I mention that she’s quirky? Frances has her “weird man-walk,” a penchant for inappropriately aggressive humor, and is the sort of person who can, without a hint of irony, stare her roommate and super best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) in the face and say: “Tell me the story of us.” Frances needs stories, no matter how dubious, in order to find an excuse to keep pirouetting around the city just ahead of all the cares she’s trying to stay free of.
Once Sophie moves out to live with her boyfriend, Frances finds it harder to keep dancing, either in the ballet studio or on the streets, but she’s not ready to give up yet. She drifts into the company of a few male friends (strictly platonic as she is deemed “undateable”), hops a plane to Paris on a whim, then makes multiple efforts to retreat to the womb, returning both to her undergrad college (as an RA) and to her parents in Sacramento.
Director Noah Baumbach co-wrote the film with Gerwig (the two are now real-life partners as well) and imbues the film with plenty of his own obsessions, including numerous overt references to French New Wave cinema, most obviously the liberal use of familiar film tracks by Georges Delerue. But for the most part he cedes center stage to Gerwig and she responds with a completely committed performance, a bundle of klutzy movements, slouched postures, awkward expressions, and nervous tics that leaves her completely exposed for judgment. Her willingness to hold absolutely nothing back deserves mad respect and can’t help but make a viewer feel guilty for finding it all quite exasperating.
And I do feel guilty. Frances clearly strikes a resonant chord with many viewers who identify with her desire to cling to an childhood dream even while all her friends are eagerly establishing their adult brands. But she isn’t content merely to be an outsider; she has a desperate need for everyone to recognize her uniqueness and to give her a pat on the back just for being her quirky, non-conformist self. This performative aspect of her rebellion (“Look at me, everyone! I’m an individual!”) betrays a level of narcissism that might have a certain charm in an adolescent, but just irks in a twenty-something clinging so self-consciously to the wisps of adolescence. That’s not to say it isn’t a plausible, valid choice for the character. Just that it’s difficult to swallow.
Also challenging is Baumbach’s decision to present the film in black-and-white. I say “present” because he shot digitally (on a Canon 5D) and then flipped it to black-and-white in post-production. The look has a smooth, soft quality to it, heavy on romantic haze and short on hard contrast, but whether it gives Frances (both the film and character) a timeless quality or just feels like a convenient shortcut (along with the borrowing of music cues) to link the film to the heritage of early New Wave is an open question.
One definite plus is the emphasis the film places on female friendship, a genuine rarity in cinema from any era. At its heart, it’s a love story between Frances and Sophie, and Frances’s tribulations are not merely a pretext for an inevitable entanglement with one of the sad-sack men in her life. She wants Sophie back, she wants it with every fiber of her being, and the film acknowledges this desire in a moving and effective denouement. In a world full of bankable bromances, it’s not something we see very often. And it’s just another reason I feel bad for not buying in.
The film is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. I don’t know if it’s a result of the film being shot on mid-budget digital or the post-production switch to black-and-white, but there are a few instances where digital artifacting is more obvious than in most Criterion high-def transfers. Pools of light in the background shimmer and “wobble” at times and blacks don’t always look solid black. It’s not bad by any means, but it’s noticeable. The image detail, of course, is strong throughout. It’s silky smooth rather than grainy, and I prefer a more textured look, but that’s how the movie was filmed. A solid transfer.
“Frances Ha” is part of Criterion’s first batch of Dual Release titles, so you get both a Blu-ray disc and an SD disc. I have not reviewed the SD for image quality.
The Blu-ray has a DTS-HD Master 5.1 track that isn’t particularly dynamic and isn’t really meant to be. The films features quite a bit of prominent music (Bowie’s “Modern Love” and other pop standards along with the New Wave compositions) but scenes are usually either all/mostly dialogue or all/mostly music, so separation isn’t a major concern. Dialogue is crisply mixed and the music is full and resonant. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
Criterion includes three interviews as supplements.
Peter Bogdanovich interviews Noah Baumbach (2013, 15 min.) about the film. Bogdanovich seems a bit… sleepy, but the conversation between mentor and former “pupil” is a warm one.
Sarah Polley interviews Greta Gerwig (2013, 17 min.) Polley is quite enamored of the film (describing it as an “unmitigated joy”) and of Gerwig’s performance.
“Interpreting Reality” (2013, 18 min.) addresses the shooting of the film and the conversion to black-and-white and features Baumbach, cinematographer Sam Levy, and Pascal Dangin, who “did the film’s color mastering.”
We also get a Theatrical Trailer (2 min.)
The 16-page insert booklet features an essay by playwright Annie Baker.
“Frances Ha” doesn’t work for me, but it’s been one of the indie darlings of 2013. Gerwig gives an all-in performance, and I respect that even if I can’t connect with Frances. For fans, the Criterion Dual Release should be satisfying, with a solid transfer and a handful of interviews.