Frances Ha breathes fresh air into the truthful but no less moribund scenario of the twentysomething American who’s floundering along as they attempt to figure out what they’re supposed to grow up to be. Director Noah Baumbach and actor/co-writer Greta Gerwig successfully contemporize and invigorate their setup by resorting without apology to an aesthetic that calls back to the past, specifically the films of the French New Wave and Woody Allen. Similar retro qualities often feel belabored in contemporary films, but it suits a story of youthful navel-gazing, as it resonates directly with a present young generation’s notion that anything new they might contribute to society is potentially suspect and inferior to whatever progress their heroes made. This aesthetic quietly reflects Frances’s (Gerwig) inability to commit to anything of the future and to move her life in a satisfactory direction, all while watching as her friends seemingly waltz through their lives unperturbed. This approach is also, lest we forget, ultimately quite truthful to the spirit of the French New Wave, which often explicitly riffed on prior films.
But the great surprise of Frances Ha is its generosity of feeling, explicitly playing as a palette cleanser for Baumbach after the accomplished but almost nihilistically hopeless Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg. Frances is so befuddled, so socially awkward as to almost occasionally scan as deranged, that it would have been easy for Baumbach to mount another of his theaters of humiliation, but this time we’re allowed to see the grace that’s at the end of the tunnel of self-doubt. This authorial kindness is particularly apparent during a lovely moment where Frances describes her ideal love as a sudden, mutual recognition of a hidden world with which only she and her man are cognizant. When Frances starts in on this monologue she appears tedious and foolish, but by the end you respond to her emotional bravery, her willingness to look foolish.
Underneath its poignant, stylish gorgeousness (the black-and-white photography mounts a convincing case for directors going digital) is also an unusually frank treatment of how friends drift apart once their ambitions and monetary accomplishments begin to differ. Frances is lost, flitting from apartment to apartment, barely employed and symbolically begging for assistance, and her friends only regard her with those cheery banalities to which we resort when faced with uncomfortable situations. But Frances isn’t to be pitied either: She’s a dervish, an arrestingly undeveloped rascal, and, as Gerwig says in an interview included on this disc, what Frances wants—or at least some very helpful things she should want—is readily available to her for the entirety of the film. Gerwig’s remark helps to clarify the source of this movie’s weird pull: It’s an expressive testament to fate and magic…and to learning to regard those qualities with the proper sense of proportion. Magic means little without stability as contrast, as magic without stability is chaos.
Cinephiles accustomed to the grit and texture of film may be irritated with the sheer pristine smoothness of much of this image, but Frances Ha is one of the most accomplished and beautiful American movies shot on digital. There’s also a character to this image that represents an admitted adjustment for those of us who like our reassuringly tactile film: Blacks and whites are respectively velvety and crisp, and the often off-putting hyper-vivid clarity we associate with a digital film has been cannily futzed with a bit to achieve a slightly blurred, intentionally distorted effect that lends the film a dreamy, timeless quality that adds a little variety to all the supernatural sharpness. In short, this is an excellent presentation of a contemporary film that strives to resemble a new restoration of an old classic—an aesthetic conceit that beautifully supports Frances Ha’s various themes. The English 5.1 DTS-HD MA boasts strong dimension and nuance, both of which are particularly evident in the rich presentation of the various terrific songs that comprise the soundtrack.
Three separate conversations, all just under 20 minutes, serve to highlight various aspects of the film’s production. Director Noah Baumbach speaks with director and former collaborator Peter Bogdanovich to give a general overview of working with Greta Gerwig and adjusting to the small crew and new digital means of shooting. Gerwig and actor-filmmaker Sarah Polley logically more specifically discuss the former’s approach to performing the character, such as her astute understanding of Frances as a young woman who often finds herself in the middle of performing even minute physical actions with little clue as to their potential conclusion. The piece with Baumbach, director of photography Sam Levy, and Pascal Dangin, who did the film’s color mastering, should be primarily of interest to aspiring filmmakers, and should be inspiring in terms of reaffirming what kind of image can be produced even with lightweight digital technology. The message of this featurette is somewhat self-consciously clear: Stop worrying and love the digital. Rounding out the package is a booklet featuring an essay by playwright Annie Baker, and the film’s trailer. These extras are a little slim for a Criterion edition, but they pack a surprising amount of interesting and potentially useful information.
Frances Ha is a bracing testament to the potentialities of digital cinema, a return to form for its director, and the first truly satisfying vehicle for its star. It’s one of the great pleasures of the year.