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The Everything and Nothing of Frances Ha

By Charlotte St Clair Wilson

Still from Noah Baumbach's “Frances Ha”

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There has been so much written about Frances Ha that this review has been sitting, waiting to be written on my bedside table for weeks. I just didn’t know where to start. Much like our eponymous hero, my bedside table is a mess of the detritus of modern city life—simmering ashtray, an old wine glass, polaroid photos and ticket stubs. The film itself is just like this detritus; easily discarded and messy but imbued with personal meaning. It has no story, nothing happens, nothing is resolved, nothing is learnt. Yet somehow it gives the viewer something. Just what that something is, I’m not sure.

On Monday morning I walked into my office, I was going to see Frances Ha that night, a young colleague shriekingly declared: “If she’d just f*cked her best friend it would have been a good film.” My own summary later that night over a few drinks was equally dismissive: “it’s just like an American film trying to be French, but you know, they only have one Woody Allen, the rest of them can’t do if it for sh*t.{ Thusly explaining the empty wine glass on my bedside table.

Mumblecore (the best-named genre of film—it makes me think of Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man fronting Black Flag) is, at its “core” (pardon the pun), a Gen Y, Americanised, dumbed-down, less-excitingly-decadent-re-imagining-of-French-New-Wave. It’s Woody Allen without any Jewish guilt or psychoanalysis getting in the way of exploring the lives of rich white people.

Suffice to say I really enjoyed this film.

Frances is a dancer and choreographer struggling to make a living, bouncing from share-house to share-house in New York. Directed by Mumblecore loyalist, Noah Baumbach, it is essentially a series of vignettes about Frances: late-twenties, educated, creative, bored. Intertitles announcing her changes of abode provide the narrative drive. Frances is witty and endearingly awkward (“undateable” as she’s often described by one housemate). The plot itself is secondary to an exploration of Frances’ increasingly shambolic life. It can be described as many things—a love story between friends, a sitcom-style-comedy about life in New York, a drama about the pitfalls of modernity etc etc. And indeed, it neatly fits all of these. But it also rejects each simple reading, and that’s what makes it more than my drunken summary gave it credit.

It is also a film that wears its cinematic references on its sleave. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—Tarantino has made a career of it—but it does mean it should be read in that context and, at times, it feels weak by comparison to some of its precedents. But, thankfully, at times it excels and revels in the power of reference. The best example of this is—and one that is apt for Fjord Review—is the scene where Frances dances across the streets of New York to David Bowie’s Modern Love. This clearly references the New Wave film Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood) but also a pantheon of American dance films —Singin’ in the Rain, Fame, Flashdance. It is one of the only extended external shots of the city, which otherwise exists as claustrophobic apartments. Frances’ exuberance is as unexpected as finally seeing that New York City has a sky above it. On its face, it seems to point to shallowness of New Wave without the intellectual drive behind it. Yet this shallowness is key. It is a key point in the film not because it drives the narrative, not because it gives us insight into Frances, not because it gives insight into the city. None of that. It is precisely because it does none of that that it is a key point in the film. It is a reference to other films, it is an aesthetically beautiful moment, it is a pointless interjection for interjection sake, reference for reference sake. All of that, none of that. Just like this film. It is everything and nothing and nothing and something. It is charming and as annoying as hell. And that’s more than I can say about most films. Baumbach has taken the traditions of the New Wave, put it in the HBO, Lena Dunham context and wrenched it back out with a wink to David Bowie on the way.

Which brings us back to my bedside table. Three weeks after seeing Frances Ha I have the flu. Suddenly, living on my own, my community has shrunk. It’s snotty and lonely. I try to remember the film. Did Frances give me hope that friendships give us true love? Did Frances make her own way? Was Frances’ life a meaningless, dull existence? Was it a beautiful mess? Is it inauthentic anyway because it was made by a man about a woman? Does authenticity matter? I reach for a packet of tissues, brushing past the wine glass. There is a lot written about this film because we, like Frances, are wondering about these questions. We live claustrophobic city lives where we watch ourselves on Girls and console ourselves with the fact that she also writes for the New Yorker which is a totes worthy magazine. Or is that too reductive? It is, because a film about nothing has made us think about something. And that’s, uh, something… I guess.


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