Two best friends sit in bed together. One gingerly asks the other to “tell the story of us.” In scenes before and after, we’ve seen them laugh, drink, cry and play-fight. They are inseparable, vibrant and dynamic. “Only the young have such moments,” wrote Joseph Conrad in his 1917 novella “The Shadow-Line.” But, as Conrad put it, that “time, too, goes on — till one perceives ahead a shadow-line warning one that the region of early youth, too, must be left behind.” This is the story of “Frances Ha.”
Frances (Greta Gerwig) is many things. She is 27 years old; she is a dancer; she is innocent; she is aloof. She’s young, but she should be more mature. She’s not a girl, not yet a woman, to use the vernacular of one Britney Spears. She is complex and confused, but she is the core around which director Noah Baumbach weaves this endearing comedy of friendship, loss, love and the coming of adulthood.
We follow the awkward but affable Frances, in scenes shot in pristine black and white, as she jokes with her best friend Sophie, bungles her way through fancy dinner parties and trips face-first onto a Brooklyn sidewalk. Besides her desire to be a professional dancer and prevent Sophie from marrying the wrong guy, there is little plot or apparent structure to “Frances Ha.” Like Frances’ haphazard life, the film appears almost improvised with organic conversation and a loose, free-form style a la French New Wave.
When I asked Baumbach (who co-wrote the film with Gerwig) about this cinema verite form, he was quick to deny an improvisation. “This movie was so rigorously planned and shot,” he said. “With Frances, I wanted to shoot more classically and more from a distance. I wanted Frances to exist in her own world.”
For Gerwig, this “own world” mentality seems to have also applied to her development of the character. “As we started writing,” she said, “(the characters) told us who they were, which is a really cheesy way to describe it. It’s odd — they kind of start living and talking, and you keep adding these details. Writing comes from yourself, but it’s also allowing yourself to evaporate and listen to all the weird voices inside of you. You have to give yourself access to not know what you’re going to write.”
The two seem at odds — Gerwig’s come-what-may approach and Baumbach’s detail-oriented method. But somehow this pairing has resulted in a film that Baumbach says “is the closest to (his) original vision out of every other film.” And, unlike the raw intimacy of some of his previous films (“The Squid and the Whale,” “Margot at the Wedding”), you can see the marked difference with “Frances Ha.” It’s still intimate and raw but so much more fluid, comfortable and brimming with an energy not found in his past material. With Gerwig, it feels like Baumbach has come into his own.
“As I get older,” Baumbach said, “different things become interesting to me. I think what was interesting about ‘Frances’ was that it is about that ‘shadow-line’ from Conrad. It’s about that first time in adulthood where you kind of have to put away childish things and move forward.” “Frances Ha” may be the shadow-line for Baumbach and Gerwig. It has little plot but says so much. It appears spontaneous but was meticulously planned. It is, like so many other films and TV shows nowadays, about 20-somethings, yet it feels wholly unique. It is, like Frances herself, an earnest and often humorous contradiction. Somehow, by exploring the vagaries of youth, Baumbach has found his place with “Frances Ha” as a richly matured filmmaker.