Do the Characters in Frances Ha Know They’re in a Black-and-White Movie?

Deleted scenes, commentary, and more.
Nov. 11 2013 11:40 PM

Life in Black and White

Frances Ha, America’s best French New Wave film.

Frances Ha
Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha. Frances’ two greatest talents, at least at the beginning of the movie, are running romantically through the streets and making omelets.

Film still courtesy Pine District/IFC Films

This essay, titled "The Green Girl," appears in the new Criterion Blu-Ray/DVD edition of Frances Ha, out today.

Frances Ha is a romance. You could even call it a romantic comedy. It’s not a boy-girl romance or a girl-girl romance but a romance between the title character and her capital-S Self: At the end of the film, after a series of obstacles, Frances finally gets to know, and fall in love with, Frances. Co-written by its director, Noah Baumbach, and its star, Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha is also that rarest kind of new American movie: one that captures in painstaking detail the way young people talk today while simultaneously paying tribute to the past century of movie aesthetics and mythologies. That combination—of persuasive naturalism and historical fairy dustis also romantic.

Frances (Gerwig) begins the film in a platonic romance with her roommate and best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Accompanied by Georges Delerue’s “Thème de Camille,” from François Truffaut’s A Gorgeous Girl Like Me, they play-fight, smoke cigarettes, cuddle on the subway, sleep in the same bed, and, perhaps most romantically, watch movies and read aloud to each other. In other words, Sophie is the person with whom Frances can be Herself: “We’re the same person with different hair,” Frances tells people. We come to learn that Sophie, despite loving Frances, doesn’t feel as intertwined: She moves out of their Brooklyn apartment to live in a more expensive one in Tribeca with a different friend, Lisa. This is the first in a series of painful upheavals in Frances’ life; suddenly, she and Sophie aren’t seeing as much of each other, and as a result she is completely adrift. The Frances and Sophie romantic narrative is ending (“Tell me the story of us,” Frances, childlike, asks Sophie at bedtime while they are still living together), and Frances spends the rest of the movie desperately seeking other people and places that will tell her who she is, and who she will become.

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We watch Frances fail, over and over again, to find the magic she’s looking for. Magic is actually a word she uses often (“You guys are like magic,” she says to Lev and Benji, her two new male friends and roommates, and “I bet it’s magic” about Paris, where she has never been and where she will go in an ill-fated attempt to cheer herself up). But the magic always drains from each new situation, and Frances’ loneliness and credit card debt keep growing. When she does arrive in Paris for her unhappy vacation, the French New Wave music ceases entirely right where one would expect it to swell (this whole section of the movie is underscored by Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s a Winner”).

One moment of great despair in Frances Ha comes when Frances lands back in New York City and receives a too-late voice-mail message from her Paris friend, Abby: “This is so wild,” Abby says. “You remember Gerard, Nicolas’s brother? The one who looks like Jean-Pierre Léaud? Well, he’s divorced now, and he’s staying with us ... Come to dinner tonight, he’ll be there, as well as a philosopher and painter couple who are really great ... Oh, this is such good timing.” We watch Frances’ face, almost expressionless, as she listens to this message on the cab ride back from JFK, and we sense the dream of a life that resembles a Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard movie slipping further and further away.

Godard constantly borrowed and re-enacted scenes from a pulpy America of the ’40s and ’50s: Billy the Kid, Singin’ in the Rain. His youthful characters are literally in France but metaphysically pirouetting through American pop culture. Baumbach’s young people are literally pirouetting through the streets of New York City but soundtracked, costumed, and rendered black and white by the French New Wave. Lev (Adam Driver) wears a Belmondo fedora; Benji (Michael Zegen) tucks his cigarette behind his ear; Frances’ two greatest talents, at least at the beginning, are running romantically through the streets and making omelets. But does Lev know he’s in a black-and-white movie? When Frances does a tightrope-style walk along the Seine, is she intentionally aping Jeanne Moreau in Jules and Jim? Or is being an aspiring twentysomething artist in a major city necessarily about trying, unconsciously or not, to make your life look like your favorite movie? And then does growing up simply mean letting go of the movie you thought your life would be?

Frances takes another plane trip during the course of the film, this one west, to Sacramento, her childhood home and a complete contrast to the Parisian “story of us” fantasy of hipster adulthood. Unexpectedly, then, it is Sacramento that is graced with a touch of magic: Maurice Jaubert’s soaring “Divertimento de la sonate a due,” from Truffaut’s Small Change, plays under a beautifully shot suburban California Christmas montage. Here in Sacramento, we finally feel the presence of grace and hope and community.

“Integrity and acceptance ... spiritual growth ... intellectual stimulation ... ” the members of Frances’ parents’ church congregation intone, and it is these concepts that will save Frances by the end of the movie. Sacramento is a place of healing (you get your teeth cleaned, you bike, you walk the dog) and earnest engagement with loved ones. We see only what feel like fragments of longer scenes during this section of the movie; the lengthiest conversation is between Frances and her mother while they look at old Christmas ornaments. “Oh, here’s the green ballerina!” says Frances’ mother (nameless but played by Gerwig’s actual mother). “You were the green girls.” “Right, yeah,” says Frances. “That was our level. We were Level Green.”

Frances and her optimism also recall the heroines of two Eric Rohmer movies, The Green Ray and A Tale of Winter. The Green Ray (1986) is about one long, disastrous, solo summer vacation that ends in a moment of pure wish fulfillment; A Tale of Winter (1992) is about a woman with romantic delusions who actually re-meets her fantasy mate at the very end of the film. Both Rohmer works track a woman in a narcissistic downward spiral who, right before we go to black, gets the thing that she has been looking for, and the thing that we have been starting to doubt that she deserves. Both films gently teach us not to underestimate anyone, and not to try to diagnose other people’s dreams as delusions. The road to self-discovery is long and strange and mysterious, and something as small as eye contact across a room or a mediocre desk job can be a symbol of personal growth as much as anything else.

Frances lets go of a dream (becoming a dancer) but rediscovers another one (becoming a choreographer). She loses Sophie to Sophie’s fiancé, Patch, but eventually she and Sophie make romantic eye contact across a room, exactly the kind of eye contact Frances dreamily described earlier at a dinner party. Frances is confused, but she’s not crazy. Slivers of her dreams come true. Movies usually either grant protagonists their goal or serve them their comeuppance; this one gives its protagonist a few little unexpected gifts, and whether or not she “deserves” them becomes irrelevant to us.

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