What does it say that Frances Ha’s most indelibly iconic scene isn’t really its own? Midway through Noah Baumbach’s latest (his first film since Kicking and Screaming to not seem actively ingratiating, and so, a departure), the titular Frances (co-writer Greta Gerwig) sprints through a monochrome Manhattan, or Manhattan, en route to a new apartment, gamboling and pirouetting freely to strains of Bowie’s “Modern Love.” Just like Denis Lavant in Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang.
It may seem at first like an eager indexical nod, signifying nothing beyond its own cleverness. But combined with the Small Change poster positioned conspicuously in one of the several New York flats that Frances crashes in throughout the film, it seems like Baumbach isn’t only fetishizing various nouveau vagues of French cinema. It’s Frances too. An educated, under-employed, itinerant “apprentice” (read: understudy) at a New York ballet company, Frances is gleefully acting out Lavant’s role, as Lavant himself embodied the acrobatics of Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly—an allusion that bubbles over into full-blown, intoxicating euphoria. For a film dotted, though not all-out littered, with pop name-checking (also dropped: SNL, Gremlins, the Shrek spin-off Puss in Boots), Baumbach’s lensing of Frances’s woozy urban ballet exceeds any banal exchange of cultural capital, all its dizzy affect existing purely for itself, for the simple sake of cinephilia.
This generalized pleasantness, this fuzzy sense that Baumbach and Gerwig are making their modern French New Wave movie for the fun of it, sustains Frances Ha as it follows its flighty 27-year-old heroine from apartment to apartment, from one social snafu to the next, even to Sacramento, backwoods New York State, and, yes, Paris, where Frances recklessly maxes out a credit card to mostly nap through her lost weekend. Granted, there’s next-to-nothing to Frances Ha, its themes of arrested adolescence having been exhaustedly mined elsewhere (see: HBO’s Girls, every American indie comedy of the past 20 years). But the film’s surface textures, its fleet movement from beat to beat, endures.
Credit here belongs in large part to Gerwig, who proved the leavening touch in Baumbach’s last film, the largely unbearable Ben Stiller brood vehicle Greenberg. There, Gerwig’s dressed-down frumpiness and tongue-tied, aw-shucks humility served to cut Stiller’s hard-faced astringency. Here, Gerwig and Baumbach configure those same self-consciously “quirky,” half-manic qualities negatively. Frances is fun (as when she pees off a subway tunnel after a night of drinking) and funny (as when she honks off the advances of a would-be suitor), yet she’s also capricious, stubborn, and self-interested, traits that at once endear her to a NYC subclass of parentally subsidized fuck-abouts (Adam Driver, Michael Zegen) and alienate her from her more careerist, self-serious longtime BFF (Mickey Sumner).
As with Girls, something about Frances’s identificatory push-pull nags. In places, like a dinner scene that rivals The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s horrific bread-breaking, Frances Ha is too confident and truly terrifying to scan as cute. In pithier passages, like Frances’s detour to her upstate alma mater to teach dance, slum around a dorm, and half-heartedly soul search, or precious snatches of dialogue (“I’m not even a real person,” Frances beams at one point, in what might as well be a popular t-shirt slogan encapsulating twentysomething malaise), the film flattens abjection into a kind of condescending, wounded-bird pitying. We feel for her because we—or at least the film’s presumed viewer—are her. Baumbach and Gerwig are too rosy in their recuperation of Frances, especially as she hunkers down, takes a desk job, mounts her own dance routine, finds an apartment, and generally springs through a too-quick last act that feels like a strained, half-deserved “get your shit together” montage.
In a way, Frances Ha feels like too perfect a portrait of quarter-life malady, down to the rushed redemptive endnotes and Gerwig’s idealized heroine. Then again, maybe the film—which ruptures any semblance of pointed realism with its decidedly unreal, incredibly beautiful black-and-white photography—is ultimately disinterested in wrestling its viewer into an empathetic rapport with Gerwig’s pixie-ish bonehead. Maybe we identify not because we are Frances, but, quite simply, because we like her.