Judge Patrick Bromley wonders where the talking mule is.
"I'm so embarrassed. I'm not a real person yet."
The above quote, spoken by the title character Frances in Noah Baumbach's latest film Frances Ha, sums up the movie perfectly. It is a movie about someone who is not yet a real person. She would like to be. At least, she thinks she would like to be.
Greta Gerwig (Greenberg) plays Frances, a twentysomething dancer living in New York with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner, CBGB). The two are inseparable—as Frances describes it, they are the same person—until Sophie decides to move out into an apartment in a more desirable location. This sets Frances, who was already mostly floundering in life into free fall: no place to live, no steady employment, no best friend to turn to and share everything. The rest of the movie follows her as she changes addresses and roommates a few more times, adapts to her new relationship with Sophie and tries to become a real person.
As a fan of both director Noah Baumbach and star Gerwig, both of whom are credited with the screenplay for Frances Ha, I fear that I may have outgrown this movie. Part character study, part almost anthropological study of the current post-college generation, the movie is very sharp and well observed. It is not, however, very emotionally involving. I like what Baumbach and Gerwig are going for—the movie follows the beats of every standard romantic comedy, only instead of ending a relationship with her boyfriend in the movie and spending the rest of the film trying to find her footing, Frances loses a best friend. It's a clever inversion of a traditional formula and actually says something about how twentysomethings seem incapable of getting through life without a support system of people with whom they can ironically comment on everything. A codependent generation. The roommate generation. And while Frances Ha has proven to be something of a polarizing movie—as many people loathe it as love it—I suspect that those people with little patience for the film are reacting not so much to the movie as to the kinds of characters it is presenting. Yes, many of them are arch hipsters. Yes, there is a kind of naval-gazing self indulgence to it all. Baumbach is just looking to observe and report his findings. Frances Ha doesn't judge its characters, telling us whether or not we should like them. Life doesn't work that way.
There is plenty to like, including Baumbach's very '60s and '70s approach to the filmmaking (it owes a lot to early Woody Allen and French New Wave) with its black and white photography, title cards, and jumpy editing; yet there is something that keeps me outside of it. Gerwig is charming and adorable because she is incapable of being anything else. In fact, all of the actors do a good job at presenting potentially annoying characters without indicating that they, as actors, know they are being annoying (I hope that makes sense). But I'm now past the age where Frances Ha has much to say to me, and what it says about the generation under me is nothing I don't already know. For as much time as we spend with her, Frances fails to be much more than a series of good intentions and failed executions. She is fun loving and sweet, but mostly a collection of mistakes. When the observations about her are sharp, the movie is really saying something. My favorite moment possibly in the entire film is when she takes a disastrously conceived holiday to France and goes to the movies to hopefully see Puss in Boots. So much is said in that scene—about the paralyzed adult woman paying to see the children's film, about the American in France seeing the Hollywood product and failing to actually try anything new, despite that being the purpose of the trip. It seems like such a minor moment, but those well-observed and telling observations are something of which the movie needs more. If Frances Ha was made up of more scenes like this one, it could be truly special.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Frances Ha—yes, it's the rare title that makes its debut on the Criterion label—looks wonderful. The 1080p HD transfer brings out every nuance of the black and white photography, limited only by factors of budget and source. The movie was shot digitally, meaning it lacks some of the depth and contrast of the great black and white films of the past, but the high def transfer still handles the detail well and never succumbs to crush issues. It looks as good as it's supposed to. The lossless surround track is only really called upon to handle the talky script and some occasional music cues (David Bowie's "Modern Love" pops up more than once), at which it is more than capable.
Fans looking for Criterion's usual super deluxe treatment might be a bit disappointed with the bonus features on Frances Ha, which amount to a couple of interviews and the original trailer. No commentary track, no deleted material. There are three interviews (more like "conversations") in total: one with Baumbach and Peter Bogdanovich, one with Gerwig and Sarah Polley and the last with Baumbach, DP Sam Levy and colorist Pascal Dangin on creating the look of the movie. As part of Criterion's new release model, both a Blu-ray and a standard definition DVD are included.
As a fan of the people involved and as a fan of what I think the movie is trying to do, I liked Frances Ha. I wanted to love it, but I just couldn't. It has so many things going for it, but I fear that I am no longer the audience for this kind of film. Once upon a time, perhaps I might have been able to love it. But unlike Frances, I have grown up.
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