‘Frances Ha’: The Intellectual Wallowing of Noah Baumbach |
Over the decades I have learned to recognize a kind of film in which the director is doing the picture to be close to the actress because he loves her; and in such an undertaking, sheer time-consuming photography and presence can take over from narrative or character.
That is not as bad as it sounds. Plenty of young men have gone into film to meet women, and making and watching films is a large (and perilous) stimulus to desire. You could make a season of films like that, and it would have to include Griffith and Lillian Gish (Broken Blossoms); von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich (Morocco, The Devil is a Woman); Antonioni and Monica Vitti (L’Avventura); Hawks and Lauren Bacall (To Have and Have Not); Capra and Barbara Stanwyck (The Miracle Woman, The Bitter Tea of General Yen); Godard and Anna Karina (Vivre Sa Vie, Pierrot le Fou); Ingmar Bergman and nearly every actress he worked with (Persona, Cries and Whispers, Summer with Monika); Hitchcock and Grace Kelly (Rear Window), and Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren (The Birds, Marnie); and Truffaut and Jeanne Moreau (Jules and Jim) and Truffaut and Catherine Deneuve (Mississippi Mermaid). You might add Leni Riefenstahl and Triumph of the Will, an immense surge of passion for a man.
Frances Ha is not at that level, but it feels like the work of a talented but insecure director who has grown up on the legend of those films. There are times when that approach runs the risk of stranding a willing young woman and leaving the audience to agonize over what is happening while the director gazes at the actress. It is an equation that makes some great movies, and others that would be better handled in private or without bothering to put film in the camera.
I don’t know what happened in this triangle, but it seems richer material for a movie than Frances Ha. I would add that, while there have been indications that Jennifer Jason Leigh can be introverted, shy, and maybe even difficult (I am guessing), she is a great actress. She was in Fast Times at Ridgemont High before Greta Gerwig was born, and a short list of her brilliance would have to include Last Exit to Brooklyn, Rush, Single White Female, Short Cuts, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Georgia (her singing of “Take Me Back” in that film is better than many careers), In the Cut, and several others. Consider just Georgia: it is not a perfect film, but the relationship between sisters (Mare Winningham is the other one) has a pain, depth, and affection, a truth, that makes the ties between Frances and her best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), feel touching but cursory. Leigh has never been nominated for an Oscar, but she has twice won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for acting and has been nominated twice more.
In 2001, moreover, she co-wrote, co-produced, and co-directed (all with the mercurial Alan Cumming) a little get-together movie called The Anniversary Party, Altmanesque if you like, but beguiling and very moving. A lot of critics expressed a hope that Cumming and Leigh would work together again. (They both played leading parts in the film.) That hasn’t happened yet, but The Anniversary Party is so much more absorbing than Frances Ha.
The comparison to “Girls” is inescapable: Adam Driver is in both that series and this film, and the emotional territory and the urban locale are so close. It’s not just that Lena Dunham is braver than Frances Ha. It’s more that, while “Girls” was made for an audience who resembles its characters, Frances Ha has a cozy parental appeal. This is for those of us who worry about our kids out of college in the city. Baumbach and Gerwig settle for the palatable conclusion that it’s all going to be all right. There aren’t any unpleasant people in Frances Ha. No one comes to a bad end or really suffers in ways that would devastate parents, instead of urging them to send more money. Sex is talked about in Frances Ha, but in “Girls” (as you may have heard) it happens, and it is part of Dunham’s artistic cool that she knows other girls beyond models want to have sex, and are ready to be humiliated in the hunt.
“Girls” takes great risks and sometimes falls on its face (which can be a painful experience). The risks in Frances Ha are cute and playful, and in time it may look not just like a fifty-year-old New York New Wave picture, but also as embarrassing as those photographs you burn before you get married. Noah Baumbach has a lot of talent, and great appetite for pure cinema, but I don’t think he is the screenwriter he deserves.