Most of you will see parts of yourself in Frances, the subject of director Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, or at least you’ll see parts of your friends. Co-written with Greta Gerwig, the film’s star, this is an observant, smart comedy that someone manages to preserve a light tone even as Frances’ life grows increasingly pathetic. Unlike Damsels in Distress and Lola Versus, Gerwig’s previous two films in which her character also experiences an identity crisis, Frances Ha never directly discusses her problems. Baumbach and Gerwig are too sharp for that, and since we can hear the quiet terror in her ongoing denial, it’s easy to care about her.
When we first meet Frances, she’s experiencing co-dependent bliss. She lives with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), and Baumbach supplies an airy montage of their twee hijinks. The moment Sophie leaves her office, Frances is there to rush up and embrace her (she repeatedly notes her and Sophie are “practically the same person”). Their apartment is great, too, except now Sophie wants to leave Brooklyn for Tribeca, her dream neighborhood. Even though Sophie cannot know, Frances is hurt because she chose living with Sophie over moving in with Dan (Michael Esper), her recent ex-boyfriend.
Putting on a brave face, this sudden departure is a catalyst for Frances’ unraveling: she shacks up with Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen), which is fine until she loses her spot in her dance company’s holiday performance. With her life falling apart, Frances’ only recourse is to cling to her friends with the plea of, “Just one more drink, please, you guys!”
After the split from Ben, Frances Ha settles into a lengthy middle section where Frances slows loses all her hipster status symbols. This could be like an episode of Girls – the appearance of Driver certainly invites the comparison – but Baumbach and Gerwig shrewdly keep her self-awareness in check. When Frances tries to recreate her Sophie friendship with Rachel (Grace Gummer), it’s a disastrous misfire, as if Frances expects to develop inside jokes without the requisite time. It’s a funny moment precisely because Frances/Gerwig walks the line between cute and needling.
Frances also tries the easy route with her romantic life: she goes on a date with Lev before she moves in with him, and she wants to preserve the gesture of paying for dinner after her credit card is declined. She runs through the streets, struggling to find an ATM, and the score from Truffaut’s The Four Hundred Blows plays in the background. Like Antoine Doinel, the film’s adolescent hero, Frances strives for significance through disastrous shortcuts.
Baumbach’s most overt nod to French New Wave is how she shoots Frances Ha in black and white. It’s the right decision: color can be distracting, and the simpler palette allows us to focus on the smaller details. Gerwig’s comic timing is perfect when she unspools at a party: her eyes wrinkle in frustration is words escape her, and she becomes dimly aware that the attendees are only listening because they’re polite, or out of pity.
But for all the scenes in Brooklyn, Frances’ travels elsewhere are where the black and white photography is truly an asset. She visits her home, Paris, and her college town, and cinematography adds a romantic layer over her thin veneer of sanity. In a more practical way, the black and white gives us a new way to look at familiar faces. Without his crappy goatee, for example, Driver is infinitely more handsome here than on Girls. Small things like this are easy to notice because black white does not just deprive us of color; it enhances what’s left.
Baumbach and Gerwig are not monsters: once the lengthy middle section is over, Frances’ story has a restorative, life-affirming conclusion. It ends with her channeling her creative forces into something solid. Frances dances through the movie – she pirouettes through the streets of New York while David Bowie’s “Modern Love” plays in the background – and it’s impressive how the final dance performance is a reflection of her personality. Many of Baumbach’s films are about educated people who struggle to get their shit together. Gerwig is at his side, personally and professionally, so he finally has the patience to consider one flawed person instead of several. We do more than care for Frances. We fall for her, too, just like they intended.