Frances Ha is a romance. You could even call it a romantic comedy. It’s not a boy-girl romance or a girl-girl romance but a romance between the title character and her capital-S Self: at the end of the film, after a series of obstacles, Frances finally gets to know, and fall in love with, Frances. Cowritten by its director, Noah Baumbach, and its star, Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha (2013) is alsothat rarest kind of new American movie: one that captures in painstaking detail the way young people talk today while simultaneously paying tribute to the past century of movie aesthetics and mythologies. That combination—of persuasive naturalism and historical fairy dust—isalso romantic.
Frances (Gerwig) begins the film in a platonic romance with her roommate and best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Accompanied by Georges Delerue’s “Theme de Camille,” from François Truffaut’s A Gorgeous Girl Like Me, they play-fight, smoke cigarettes, cuddle on the subway, sleep in the same bed, and, perhaps most romantically, watch movies and read aloud to each other. In other words, Sophie is the person with whom Frances can be Herself: “We’re the same person with different hair,” Frances tells people. We come to learn that Sophie, despite loving Frances, doesn’t feel as intertwined: she moves out of their Brooklyn apartment to live in a more expensive one in Tribeca with a different friend, Lisa. This is the first in a series of painful upheavals in Frances’s life; suddenly, she and Sophie aren’t seeing as much of each other, and as a result she is completely adrift. The Frances and Sophie romantic narrative is ending (“Tell me the story of us,” Frances, childlike, asks Sophie at bedtime while they are still living together), and Frances spends the rest of the movie desperately seeking other people and places that will tell her who she is, and who she will become.
We watch Frances fail, over and over again, to find the magic she’s looking for. Magic is actually a word she uses often (“You guys are like magic,” she says to Lev and Benji, her two new male friends and roommates, and “I bet it’s magic” about Paris, where she has never been and where she will go in an ill-fated attempt to cheer herself up). But the magic always drains from each new situation, and Frances’s loneliness and credit card debt keep growing. When she does arrive in Paris for her unhappy vacation, the French New Wave music ceases entirely right where one would expect it to swell (this whole section of the movie is underscored by Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s a Winner”).
One moment of great despair in Frances Ha comes when Frances lands back in New York City and receives a too-late voice-mail message from her Paris friend, Abby: “This is so wild,” Abby says. “You remember Gerard, Nicolas’s brother? The one who looks like Jean-Pierre Léaud? Well, he’s divorced now, and he’s staying with us . . . Come to dinner tonight, he’ll be there, as well as a philosopher and painter couple who are really great . . . Oh, this is such good timing.” We watch Frances’s face, almost expressionless, as she listens to this message on the cab ride back from JFK, and we sense the dream of a life that resembles a Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard movie slipping further and further away.
Godard constantly borrowed and reenacted scenes from a pulpy America of the forties and fifties: Billy the Kid, “Singin’ in the Rain.” His youthful characters are literally in France but metaphysically pirouetting through American pop culture. Baumbach’s young people are literally pirouetting through the streets of New York City but soundtracked, costumed, and rendered black and white by the French New Wave. Lev (Adam Driver) wears a Belmondo fedora; Benji (Michael Zegen) tucks his cigarette behind his ear; Frances’s two greatest talents, at least at the beginning, are running romantically through the streets and making omelets. But does Lev know he’s in a black-and-white movie? When Frances does a tightrope-style walk along the Seine, is she intentionally aping Jeanne Moreau in Jules and Jim?Or is being an aspiring twentysomething artist in a major city necessarily about trying, unconsciously or not, to make your life look like your favorite movie? And then does growing up simply mean letting go of the movie you thought your life would be?
Frances takes another plane trip during the course of the film, this one west, to Sacramento, her childhood home and a complete contrast to the Parisian “story of us” fantasy of hipster adulthood. Unexpectedly, then, it is Sacramento that is graced with a touch of magic: Maurice Jaubert’s soaring “Divertimento de la sonate a due,” from Truffaut’s Small Change, plays under a beautifully shot suburban California Christmas montage. Here in Sacramento, we finally feel the presence of grace and hope and community.
“Integrity and acceptance . . . spiritual growth . . . intellectual stimulation . . . ,” the members of Frances’s parents’ church congregation intone, and it is these concepts that will save Frances by the end of the movie. Sacramento is a place of healing (you get your teeth cleaned, you bike, you walk the dog) and earnest engagement with loved ones. We see only what feel like fragments of longer scenes during this section of the movie; the lengthiest conversation is between Frances and her mother while they look at old Christmas ornaments. “Oh, here’s the green ballerina!” says Frances’s mother (nameless but played by Gerwig’s actual mother). “You were the green girls.” “Right, yeah,” says Frances. “That was our level. We were Level Green.”
Frances and her optimism also recall the heroines of two Eric Rohmer movies, The Green Ray and A Tale of Winter. The Green Ray (1986) is about one long, disastrous, solo summer vacation that ends in a moment of pure wish fulfillment; A Tale of Winter (1992) is about a woman with romantic delusions who actually re-meets her fantasy mate at the very end of the film. Both Rohmer works track a woman in a narcissistic downward spiral who, right before we go to black, gets the thing that she has been looking for, and the thing that we have been starting to doubt that she deserves. Both films gently teach us not to underestimate anyone, and not to try to diagnose other people’s dreams as delusions. The road to self-discovery is long and strange and mysterious, and something as small as eye contact across a room or a mediocre desk job can be a symbol of personal growth as much as anything else.
Frances lets go of a dream (becoming a dancer) but rediscovers another one (becoming a choreographer). She loses Sophie to Sophie’s fiancé, Patch, but eventually she and Sophie make romantic eye contact across a room, exactly the kind of eye contact Frances dreamily described earlier at a dinner party. Frances is confused, but she’s not crazy. Slivers of her dreams come true. Movies usually either grant protagonists their goal or serve them their comeuppance; this one gives its protagonist a few little unexpected gifts, and whether or not she “deserves” them becomes irrelevant to us.
Despite the love affair with French cinema running underneath and alongside Frances Ha, you don’t have to have watched a single movie by Truffaut, Rohmer, Godard, or Leos Carax to enjoy the movie or feel its profundity. That’s why Baumbach’s tributes to the directors he loves never feel like rip-offs or self-congratulatory references. Just as Frances finally looks to herself and not others for fulfillment, Frances Ha exists on its own weird little terms; you feel its lack of desire to be any other movie but the movie it is. Gerwig’s performance also radiates emotional authenticity; she never seems to be asking us to feel any particular way about Frances, or to pay more attention to her than anyone else in any given scene. Gerwig manages to just kind of exist in front of the camera without comment, and some of the fun of Frances Ha is watching a performance that is virtuosic in part because it never seems to aspire to virtuosity.
At different points during the film, audience members may suspect that the whole movie is leading up to a Frances-Benji romantic union. Their relationship contains all the elements of rom-com tension and bad-then-good timing. Benji clearly adores Frances, and shows up for her dance performance at the end of the movie. They admit to each other that they’re both still single. There’s a pause. And then, wonderfully and subversively, the moment passes, and the movie moves on to Frances’s eye contact with Sophie and to her new apartment, where she can now live roommate-free. Who knows if Frances and Benji will ever get together? It’s actually irrelevant in the romance that is this movie. Frances’s ability to live alone, and inch toward artistic and spiritual fulfillment, is the happy ending we get, and it’s totally satisfying.
And then there are the details (which are the most important part, anyway). Sophie’s glasses and the way they shine in the dark—how there’s somehow always a little romantic light from Frances bouncing off of her. Frances’s tendency to eat too fast. Lev’s family portraits of people who are not his family. The preteen girl weeping in the hallway of the Vassar dorm. The schoolchildren playing outside Frances’s window in Paris, marking the passage of time. The faces of the singing churchgoers in Sacramento. The delicious dialogue fragment we hear from Frances’s dad while he and Frances walk the dog (“Well, you know, your mom—”). The fact that they bring that goddamn dog into the airport. The fact that we never know to which Woolf novel Frances is referring! The fact that we can’t quite tell if Andy the lawyer is quietly miserable or quietly happy! The fact that by the end of the movie, Patch seems like much more than just a guy who buys a black leather couch and is like, “I love it.” He seems like a real person.
The vulnerable, living-and-breathing quality that every character in the movie possesses is also in the cinematography. The images in Frances Ha have a kind of luminous, throbbing quality that I previously thought was possible only on film. It is the warmest and most analog-feeling movie I’ve seen that was shot with a digital camera (and a pretty inexpensive one at that). Because of this, and because it’s in black and white, Frances Ha seems simultaneously very old and very new.
So does its protagonist. Frances lives in 2013, and yet she refracts cinematic light from 1959 and 1964 and 1986. She is inside a movie learning that life is not a movie. Her dreams of adulthood and fulfillment arc across the past hundred years of cinema, and yet she is utterly original. The last scene in Frances Ha has Frances spelling out her full name and then displaying two-thirds of it. She has almost reached adulthood but isn’t quite there yet; still green, but less green than before; more herself, but still inside a movie. We leave her there. This feeling of happy incompleteness is more romantic than any career triumph or kiss. It’s magic.