When Tricky named a song "Brand New You're Retro," he probably didn't mean it as praise. But the phrase fits Frances Ha — and not as a dis. Noah Baumbach's black-and-white ode to New York and star Greta Gerwig feels like a French New Wave film, particularly in its bittersweet take on urban life. It even briefly heads to Paris, where Gerwig's character Frances gets herself in credit card debt to spend the weekend.
But if Frances Ha resembles an urban fantasia, it has its feet on the ground too. It's about what it's like to live in New York as a young artist without a trust fund and argue with your roommates about just how much rent you'd agreed to pay. Frances is a poorer — though not exactly poor — cousin to the girls of Girls, trying hard to remain middle-class. In that, her struggles feel very contemporary.
Frances is rooming in Brooklyn with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) when Frances Ha begins. At age 27, she doesn't quite have her life together. An apprentice dancer, she dreams of becoming a choreographer, or at least a full partner in the dance troupe where she works, but that seems unlikely. She breaks up with her boyfriend in an early scene over the issue of moving in with him. However, while she's unwilling to betray Sophie by moving out, Sophie shows no such reluctance — which leads to Frances living with two guys.
Unlike Lena Dunham, Gerwig has had her image largely molded by men, the most famous being Woody Allen. But she's far from a passive participant in this process — she co-directed Hannah Takes the Stairs with Joe Swanberg. She wrote Frances Ha with Baumbach, and the script's piquant take on female friendship no doubt stems somewhat from this authorial partnership. Frances keeps referring to herself as "undateable"; while she's not a lesbian, the strongest relationships in her life seem to be with women. In that respect, Baumbach owes a debt to Jacques Rivette's Celine and Julie Go Boating, even if his film's visuals resemble early Godard more. Gerwig herself even bears a resemblance to '60s Godard stars Anna Karina and Anne Wiazemsky, but she's a far more active creator of her own persona, as a recent Village Voice cover story pointed out.
As an example of "fanboy cinema," Frances Ha is far preferable to the worst excesses of Quentin Tarantino and his followers. Baumbach and Gerwig clearly haven't lived their entire lives in the cinematheque and video store; their script shows the marks of experience, even if they're wedded here to the '60s film scores of Georges Delerue. Homage tips over into plagiarism just once, when Baumbach and Gerwig re-enact Denis Lavant's exhilarating Parisian sidewalk sprint from Leos Carax's 1986 Mauvais Sang in Manhattan's Chinatown. (It even uses the same song, David Bowie's "Modern Love" — too bad a track off Bowie's new comeback album The Next Day wasn't available, to lessen the sense of stale mimicry.)
In these and other details, Frances Ha's vision of New York life admittedly seems as much a fantasy as Woody Allen's. It's as white as the first season of Girls; while Frances lives in Chinatown for a time, she never interacts with any people of color other than deli cashiers. Nevertheless, it's a recognizable version of the city, and it makes no claims to being the "voice of a generation," as Girls was initially marketed. Frances gets knocked around by the city and her peers, but she emerges triumphant. So does Baumbach's delightful film.
Greta Gerwig will participate in a post-film Q&A via Skype after the 7:30 p.m. screening Friday, May 31.