If you’ve read any reviews of Noah Baumbach’s latest, Frances Ha, which was co-written with the film’s star, Greta Gerwig, you know that it is a departure, in some sense or another, from his previous movies. It’s sunnier and less autobiographical than his previous three films (Greenberg, Margot at the Wedding, The Squid and the Whale). It’s his first film in black and white, and it has probably the happiest ending of anything he’s directed before.
What you might not realize from reading reviews is just how much the movie is concerned with money—more specifically, the way money’s relative (key word here) absence affects the lives of young, middle-class white people. This is a subject Baumbach has circled around in most of his movies, but in Frances Ha it’s front and center. And yet most considerations of the movie so far barely bring it up, if they mention it at all.
That’s probably because Baumbach’s subjects are—in this movie as always—just that: middle and upper-middle-class white people. Their financial problems hardly amount to crushing poverty. Frances Ha even touches on that very point, in a way: In one scene, Frances refers to herself as “poor,” and then is berated by a friend who says that applying that adjective to herself is an insult to “actual poor people”—i.e., people who don’t have B.A.’s from fancy liberal arts colleges and whose parents don’t live in nice houses in (seemingly) affluent suburbs, as Frances’s do.
That family and educational background make Frances middle class, her bank account is usually empty—as we learn in another scene, in which Frances, after taking a friend out to dinner with money from a tax rebate, debates whether or not to pay a $3 ATM fee to get the cash she needs to pay for their meal. (The restaurant wouldn’t take her debit card.) The movie doesn’t pretend that this is a great tragedy; it’s just an everyday problem for people who are, let’s say, financially insecure.
You’re not supposed to pity Frances—that’s not the point. For one thing, that insecurity is at least partly self-chosen. She has come to New York, where the rent is too damn high, to become a dancer. That profession and that location are both financially impractical choices. She also takes a shady credit card offer so she can charge a weekend trip to Paris, where she stays in a pied à terre that belongs to some friends of a friend. Later she acknowledges that this was a stupid financial decision. It’s also one she never would have made if she hadn’t gone to a dinner party with people who were much better off than her, and who offered the place. Some of the tension in Frances’ life comes from being surrounded by people who have a lot more money than she does—including her best friend Sophie, who leaves Frances without a place to live after deciding to move in with her boyfriend, whom Frances describes as “the kind of guy who buys a black leather couch and is like, ‘I love it’.” (He works in finance.)
There are plenty of people who will roll their eyes at all of this—and who, if they see the movie, will probably hate it for dwelling to some extent on the problems of a person whose life, all things considered, is not that difficult. I saw the movie on top of a New York City public school as part of a great summer series called Rooftop Films, and the screening was followed by a Q&A with Baumbach and Gerwig; one of the first questions was about what if any “social value” this character study about upper-middle-class white people had. The questioner called the film “boring.” Gerwig answered him very politely, conceding that the subject of their movie was nothing so important as, say, life under a dictatorial government. But she then pointed to the film’s concern with how money affects these characters’ lives, often in ways they don’t talk about, because it can be so socially awkward to address.
The questioner was not satisfied (though several people in the audience applauded). And the movie certainly doesn’t have any grand social message. But it does pay close attention to financial realities in a way that many films don’t—and in a way that many viewers, it seems, are likely to overlook.