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Blending humour, melancholy and sharp insight into complex relationships, Noam Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s collaboration is a wonderfully uplifting tale that is as beautifully shot as it is acted.
“What do you do?” is not an easy question to answer if, like Frances Ha, your dance company doesn’t want to keep you on, you’ve split up with your partner, your best friend has moved out and the generosity of your friends wanes as you hop between their flats. Halfway through Frances Ha, this skittish, endearing twenty-seven-year-old is asked just that at a swanky dinner-party. There’s a jittery pause before she confesses, to a room of success stories, “it’s kind of hard to explain . . . because I don’t really do it”.
What Frances wants to do is carry on living with best friend Sophie – all irony and barbed comments, played by Sting’s daughter Mickey Summer – become a professional dancer and generally have a whale of a time without anything ever changing. The first twenty minutes grant Frances exactly this in gorgeously shot scenes that capture female friendship at its most ferociously tender; Frances and Sophie fall asleep watching a film together and joke that they’re “like the lesbian couple who don’t have sex any more”. So when Sophie decides to move out to a better neighbourhood and on with her life, Frances is left with nowhere to live and the realisation that, minus a credit card, “I’m not a real person yet”.
Beautifully shot in a strangely luminous and luxurious digital black and white, Frances Ha delivers more than a few nods to Lena Dunham’s Girls, Woody Allen and French New Wave. The film delivers director Noam Baumbach’s customary clutch of tropes – the offbeat characters of Greenberg and the compassion of The Squid and Whale come together here – but always wears its influences lightly, rarely tipping over into sickly homage or awkward pastiche. For despite the well-trodden indie ground that Frances walks – or, frequently, dances – over, there is a wonderful mix of timelessness and timeliness in its modern use of black and white and its focus on female relationships. Colourless, Frances Ha is cast dreamily adrift in time, but its focus on the complexities of female friendships and identity firmly sets this in 2013.
And if viewers don’t fall in love with the Woody Allen-esque New York with its Girls twist, here hilariously epitomised by Adam Driver and Michael Zegen as two flat-sharing trust-fund artists, they’ll surely fall in love with Frances herself. Tall, gauche and filled with such giddy joie de vivre that she dusts herself off from every knock-back, Frances shines through the hipster drivel that surrounds her. Much has been written about Baumbach and Grewig’s off-screen relationship, and it’s hard to know where Grewig ends and Frances begins. But this ambiguity only heightens Frances’ appeal. There’s a brilliant scene that sees her dancing down the street to a Bowie soundtrack with a huge grin on her face; another shows her saying goodbye to her parents (played by Grewig’s actual parents) after Christmas at home, her face aching with sadness.
It is this mix of melancholy and joy that makes Frances Ha feel weightier than its 85-minute running time. Its soft grey tones echo the strange in-between land of your mid-twenties, and tinge Frances’ story of a crumbling friendship and a failing career with sadness. But it is precisely this sense of sadness that will irritate many people. What does a privileged young girl who lives in New York really have to complain about? Even I, completely smitten by Frances, felt a twinge of annoyance when she flew to Paris for an impromptu weekend on a through-the-post credit card (a twinge that was quickly dispelled by a brilliantly tongue-in-cheek homage to French New Wave that sees Frances all alone in Paris, a short story on screen). And as many people who are bewitched by Frances’ dizzying smile and unfailingly positive outlook, many others will find her naiveté and self-absorption an infuriating and pretentious combination.
I am not one of them. I adored Frances Ha. For all its narrow, New York focus, its hipster facade and its self-aware pretentions to nostalgic cinema, this is a touching, charming film that grapples with female friendships, growing up and the difficulties of life when every one around you seems to be moving on. Whatever it is you’re doing Frances, just keep doing it.