Wednesday, May 29, 2013

'Frances Ha' and life after the marriage plot

Posted By on Wed, May 29, 2013 at 3:42 PM

Greta Gerwig as Frances Ha
  • Copyright Pine District, LLC.
  • Greta Gerwig as Frances Ha

Frances Ha is probably the best film that will be made about this generation.

Let me clarify that. By "this generation," I mean people in their late twenties right about now. Whether a film could even "be made about" that generation is debatable; describing a movie about white, upper-middle class women living in Brooklyn as representative of a vast, diverse group of people is exactly the kind of thing that's offensive to a lot of people in this generation. What I mean is that Frances Ha is a film about a certain age at a certain time more than it is about anything else. It seems doubtful that anyone else will attempt a film about 27-year-olds in 2013 with the same grace that Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach have lent to Frances Ha. The future, as painful as it is to consider for Frances, the 27-year-old whose name becomes the title of this film, is always somewhere out there. Thus, the "probably."

Gerwig plays Frances, a dancer whose career has stalled before ever quite getting going. She works for a professional dance company, but as an apprentice and instructor rather than a full-fledged dancer in the company. We see slightly younger, more graceful women dance lead roles while Frances leads a class for children and struggles absentmindedly through rehearsals as an understudy.

Gerwig is tall and slightly broad in the shoulders, probably too much of either to fit the slight frame of the professional dancer that Frances wants to be. She bumps into things. She falls down. Her inexact physical presence is the kind of thing that can charm a packed movie theatre, but could never match the polished grace of a professional dancer. The audience understands this almost immediately from Gerwig's physical performance, but Frances, when we meet her, has yet to accept it.

Frances' dilemma is the dilemma of her generation. Like the graduate student stuck teaching adjunct classes or the perpetual intern who can't land a media job, she is the product of middle class parents who assured her that going to college and believing in herself would be enough to land her a place among the creative class. They probably helped pay for her move to New York, because that's where people really make it, anyway. Of course, the great recession came along and universities started slashing budgets for new professors and most of the media jobs disappeared along with the newspapers and magazines and every other mildly ambitious person her age also moved to Brooklyn at the same time and, in the case of Frances, the dance company she works for is getting smaller, not bigger. It is a testament to Gerwig's acting and the subtlety of the script that she and director Baumbach co-wrote that we need just a few scenes of physical acting and indirect, very funny dialogue to understand that Frances is something like a late-Millenial everywoman.

That dialogue deserves some attention. Before anyone saw it, Frances Ha was already being compared to Girls, a show about slightly younger, middle-class women in Brooklyn that shares a male character, played by Adam Driver, with the film. That show is far from perfect, but it happens to be only thing on television whose characters actually speak like twenty-somethings. The characters in Frances Ha also speak like twenty-somethings, which is where the similarities, aside from the aforementioned, with Girls mostly end. Frances Ha is a focused, carefully modest update of Woody Allen's New York films; Girls is a sitcom perfectly calibrated for Gawker blogging recaps and Twitter debates.

Back to that dialogue. The best of it comes between Frances and her best friend Sophie, played by Mickey Sumner as the straight woman to Frances' (literally and metaphorically) klutzy life. They speak to each other in unselfconscious confessions and self-consciously stupid voices and inside jokes, most often about things of little importance, occasionally about the most important things in their lives. Their intimacy is so natural that we feel lucky to be included, as if we have been allowed into a very special, very small circle.

Greta Gerwig and Mickey Sumner
  • Copyright Pine District, LLC.
  • Greta Gerwig and Mickey Sumner

In the film's first minutes, Frances breaks up with a boyfriend when he proposes that she move out of the apartment she shares with Sophie to live with him. Such is her loving dedication to her best friend. Shortly after, Sophie moves out of the apartment to live with her hedge fund analyst boyfriend. The plot, though it matters little, essentially follows Frances as she hops from place to place, unmoored by Sophie's unexpected move.

In this way, Frances Ha is as much a movie about being 27 as it is about being almost 30, that magical year when it is suddenly, deeply embarrassing to not have your shit together, to not be an adult. This subject is far from new, and has, historically, been resolved by the "marriage plot." From Pride and Prejudice to You've Got Mail, the marriage plot works exactly as it sounds. Whatever problems that arise in the main character's lives, usually professional or money problems like Frances', are resolved by marriage, the magical union between two people. If I sound cynical about that, it is because I am, like most other people in my generation, skeptical that marriage has anything to do with the "happily ever after" that a marriage plot suggests. Likewise, Frances is not a character in pursuit of marriage or a child and, thus, Frances Ha is a film that cannot be resolved by a marriage plot.

That's not to say that Frances doesn't have romantic interests. Early on, she gets an unexpected tax return and, spurred by this unusually flush moment, asks a younger man she recently met at a party to dinner. The dinner goes well, but her plan to pay goes horribly awry. The restaurant won't take her card, she can't find an ATM to pull out the cash, and so on. Amidst this comedy of errors, she blurts, "I'm sorry. I'm not a person yet."

In a marriage plot, Frances' self-perceived lack of full personhood would be resolved by a marriage to the man she's chosen to have dinner with. For a moment, it seems that Frances Ha might turn that way. Lev, the younger man played by Adam Driver, has a room available in his apartment that Frances rents from him for a reduced rate. He is financially secure, attractive, and seemingly attracted to her. Perhaps Lev's interest in her would give her the confidence to be more ambitious with her dancing and discipline. Perhaps his casual stability could float her for long enough to turn the corner with the dance company. Of course, all of those ideas are sexist horseshit, but they are the style of sexist horseshit that one has grown accustomed to seeing in Hollywood films.

It isn't to be for Frances and Lev. She charmingly, hilariously turns down his advances on the first night. He returns to a perpetual string of one-night stands. She settles into a routine of watching movies and eating take-out with the third roommate, an interested but ultimately ineffectual male. She worries about her weight. She talks about sex much more than she has it. Lev comes and goes in the background, a reminder that the story won't solve itself that easily. All of which leads Frances Ha into relatively new water: how to resolve the marriage plot in 2013, when no one gives a shit about marriage anymore.

In one of the film's most excruciating scenes, Frances is at a dinner party full of married professionals. After a few too many glasses of wine, Frances gives a long, meandering monologue, trying to articulate her desires in life, her longing for intimacy without the trappings of possession. The room is full of bankers and lawyers who stare back at her like a crazy person.

Eventually, Frances leads the film down a meandering, maybe even flailing path. As a traditional plot, the film loses its bearings, going astray without giving us much in return. This is artful, though, letting the film be as helpless for resolution as Frances is. The narrative becomes messy, like Frances' meandering monologue at the dinner party. The married characters in that room would probably be equally disappointed by the last third of this film.

It seems important to note here that Baumbach, who is maybe best known as a friend of and sometimes-collaborator with Wes Anderson, has become the better filmmaker. While Anderson's movies have become obsessed with twee art direction and precious trademark style, Baumbach's work has become less and less precious, more willing to let his films be suited to their subjects. He has compromised some of the polish that made The Squid and the Whale such a tight, stylish hit, but he has more than made up for that with the substance of his work.

Like Baumbach, Frances finds a little resolution in compromise, taking a desk job with the dance company and trying her hand at choreography instead of dancing herself. Around that time, we get a lovely moment of intimacy between Sophie and Frances that carries more emotional weight than 100 scenes of Hollywood romance combined. A plot that ends on compromise isn't sexy, nor is it a surefooted answer to the questions about this generation that the film raises. It is not even a terribly good story. In that way, it is the best thing I've seen about this generation. The film's final joke involves a mailbox and, though I've given away the rest of the film at this point, I can't bear to ruin it here. Suffice to say, that Frances, however truncated, seems to finally be a person.

Frances Ha opens May 31 in Atlanta.

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