Writers often speak of finding their muse. Judging by his films, it’s a conceit that would probably make Noah Baumbach bristle as he dismisses the concept, only to note its comedic potential for future character reference. But there’s no denying that his recent collaborations with girlfriend Greta Gerwig have recalibrated his creative drive. Their first project together, 2010’s Greenberg, found a much-needed vehicle for Baumbach’s long-lost sense of sympathy in the form of Gerwig’s Florence, a charmingly neurotic foil to Ben Stiller’s bitter, self-entitled antihero. That film succeeded most when Gerwig was given space to inject humanity into Baumbach’s darkening worldview. She’s seems to have inspired something similar across the entirety of the duo’s first full writing partnership, Frances Ha, an unassumingly potent and rich film which represents a long-awaited return to peak form for Baumbach after a number of years wallowing in less hopeful material.
Baumbach’s never worked in anything even close to resembling a large scale, but even so, Frances Ha feels like an unusually intimate, personal piece, a return to his early, more naïvely optimistic phase. Credit Gerwig or not, but there’s little arguing that the film is a renewal of Baumbach’s spark and sharp wit, with his unmatched sense of awkwardly syncopated comedic rhythm enforced and enhanced by Gerwig’s equally awkward, endearingly loopy delivery in the title role. Frances, a 27-year-old apprentice dancer floundering through her post-collegiate years, is all quirks and self-conscious maneuvering, noncommittal to her soon-to-be-ex boyfriend yet overly attached to her roommate and best friend Sophie (“We’re like a lesbian couple who doesn’t have sex anymore,” Frances says at one point). When Sophie, played by Mickey Sumner, announces plans to move out and thus symbolically leave Frances behind, a series of tableaux commence as Frances bounces between new living situations, treading water financially while generally avoiding responsibility.
Life seems to be passing Frances by as she exists in a perpetual state of limbo. The character as written is potentially hazardous, but Gerwig—who’s made a career out of playing similar types, but who claims she wasn’t planning on taking the role herself—handles the nuance of the dialogue and the flighty gestures of Frances with a naturally magnetic aplomb, coming off like a bright light in a two-toned world. The character brims with life and misplaced potential in equal measure, well aware of her shortcomings (she’s the kind of person who un-ironically apologizes for a common social faux pas by saying, “Sorry, I’m not a person yet”), but blindly optimistic about a future she’s done little to actually set herself up for. In one of the film’s most inspired sequences, Frances runs euphorically down the streets of Manhattan as David Bowie’s “Modern Love” plays on the soundtrack, an inverted American riff on a near-identical scene in Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang, replacing Denis Lavant’s headlong handsprings with Gerwig’s passionate pirouettes. It’s one of many nods to those freewheeling sects of French cinema that have obviously left an indelible mark on Baumbach.
The film was shot relatively quickly, on an even more modest budget than what Baumbach usually trades in, and without the stars that have headlined his most recent films. The resulting spontaneity seems to suggests an allowance for improvisation, which belies the fact that these characters and, in particular, their words are so carefully developed and finessed into such casually observant creations by Baumbach and Gerwig. The aesthetic of the film is likewise reflected in this intuitive approach, instilling the surface hues of Woody Allen’s monochromatic Manhattan with the sharply cut montage dynamics of the French New Wave. As mentioned, the latter movement feels like an especially apt touchstone here. Not only do Frances’s first new roommates (Adam Driver and Michael Zegen, both seemingly snatched from real life and very funny as potential partners for Frances) have a poster of François Truffaut’s Small Change hanging on their wall, but on a more personal level, the relationship between Baumbach and Gerwig itself—and the subsequent creative energy that it seems to have spawned—feels something like an angst-ridden inversion of the one between Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina a half century ago.
But to Baumbach and Gerwig’s credit, the film never feels like anything but their own. Comparisons to the HBO series Girls have been made, but anyone with a passing knowledge of Baumbach’s work should easily spot this as not only an extension, but a flowering of his thematic preoccupations, an update on his sometimes cynical but helplessly romantic twentysomethings of old (Josh Hamilton, the star of Baumbach’s first feature, the indie classic Kicking and Screaming, even makes a cameo during one particularly painful dinner sequence, where Frances gets drunk and expounds on her standards for true love in a speech to rival that same film’s endlessly bittersweet conclusion). That Frances shows signs of maturation by the film’s end is development enough, but the sense that she’s indeed reached a new plateau in her development is likewise appropriate, as Gerwig, a partner that one hopes becomes a figure of continued inspiration for Baumbach, has brought out a dormant magic in this sometimes cynical director’s artistic process.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6—16.