Frances Ha relies on exposition but depends on summary. Or it depends on exposition but relies on summary. One or the other. Director and co-writer Baumbach and star and co-writer Greta Gerwig move Frances in the summary. Even when the film slows down for a longer scene, the style and tone don’t really change, so it feels continuous. Time passes–the film takes place over a year or so–but is never particularly defined. Because Gerwig’s Frances doesn’t seem to particularly define time either.
The film’s a fractured character study. Baumbach and Gerwig’s script plays with the narrative distance a lot; they established Gerwig’s character as a somewhat unreliable narrator at the start–using comedic social awkwardness to call into question the degree of the unreliability–but as the film progresses, they further explore that unreliability. The film examines Gerwig, while–for the most part–she’s also the protagonist.
Though it’s not a traditional character study by any means. There’s a decided lack of melodrama, partially because Gerwig and her costars live in a carefree New York City, partially because Frances (film and character) willfully create that carefree New York City. There’s a varying narrative distance to the film’s four locations (New York, Sacramento, Paris, Vassar College) as well, as Gerwig experiences them. As the film moves along, more and more people come into it. Even if they’re background; New York, at the beginning, is entirely focused on Gerwig’s experience of it. In crowded rooms, for instance, the focus is all on Gerwig and the objects of her immediate attention. The film doesn’t show Gerwig around other people. Because she’s living in her head.
The film does have a structure, however. It has chapters with titles. Not the locations but Gerwig’s changing address. The first one doesn’t make much impression, but eventually they become a guide to the film. The narrative distance might be changing, time to adjust your attention. As a director, Baumbach is very intentional. He and cinematographer Sam Levy–shooting in black-and-white–keep a lot out of focus. They let shadows be too dark. They guide the viewer’s eyes, they cause them frustration. But that attention to detail might be surpassed by Jennifer Lame’s transcendent editing. Even when the film is at its most cloying–which isn’t bad, it’s just cute banter comedy, which is cloying for Frances–Lame is able to maintain that summary momentum. Not just the cuts in the actual montage sequences, but the cuts in expository scenes. Lame cuts for actors’ performances, whether they’re in the middle of a monologue or silent in a long shot. It’s a beautifully made film, as well as being utterly gorgeous to watch.
Gerwig’s performance is outstanding. And entirely overshadows the rest of the cast. The inciting action of the film is Gerwig’s best friend and roommate, Mickey Sumner, moving in with someone else. It sets things in motion, the things Gerwig’s aware of and navigating, the things she’s not.
Sumner’s okay. She gets a lot better in the third act, but she’s always okay. Adam Driver and Michael Zegen are Gerwig’s next set of roommates. Driver’s showy, but Zegen’s got a heart of gold. The performances are spot on. No one else really has much to do. Charlotte d’Amboise is the leader of Gerwig’s dance troupe, so she’s got scenes, but they’re all expository. Grace Gummer is another roommate and she’s around for a bit, but she doesn’t get anything significant.
And it’s fine. Because it’s Gerwig’s show. Both as actor and writer, she’s pacing out character development in an almost entirely passive character–in an almost entirely passive film. And she does it. And the filmmaking is there to meet her. Some aspects of Gerwig’s performance work apart from the filmmaking, just as some aspects of the filmmaking work apart from the script. Frances Ha perplexes, but in the best ways.
Truly awesome soundtrack too.
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