Looking Towards Contextualising Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha

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Noah Baumbach’s sublime Frances Ha is set to feature prominently in the upcoming Periodical #3. Such is the quality of the picture that I feel compelled to voice my thoughts on here too, ahead of the films theatrical debut at the end of July. Think of this as a primer, as a contextualising companion to a wider analytical piece.

Over the past 8 years Baumbach has developed considerably as a filmmaker. Although a working director for some years prior, his breakthrough came via his role as one of the writers on Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, and it’s that creative turn that neatly separates the filmmakers early period and the one he’s currently in. From The Squid And The Whale* through Greenberg, via the under-seen Margot At The Wedding, Baumbach has crafted his own niche in the category of lost and alienated. Having examined the lives of a pair of children caught up in the midst of a divorce, a mentally unbalanced woman verging on middle-age and a former rock star turned recluse Baumbach here turns his gaze to a younger woman, Frances, a 27-year old New Yorker played by Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrotlife isn’t panning out as expected. While not as emotionally affecting as the remarkable Greenberg, Baumbach has produced a more thoroughly impressive work in Frances Ha, in which he exhibits for the first time some highly cine-literate leanings, and displays a great passion for the medium itself.

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The aforementioned separation of period within the filmmakers work is apt when one is directly addressing Baumbach in the now. The first act of Frances Ha plays out like some incredible tribute to Jacques Rivette, a filmmaker whose own body of work is neatly compartmentalised in to three sections. The work of that director’s middle period, in which he merged whimsy with the real to create an overreaching tapestry that was ultimately one big meditation on the role of performance within life and art is the one most closely aligned to the tone of Frances Ha, with that film’s eponymous protagonist a vessel for similar thoughts and musings. A woman searching for her own being is noteworthily Rivetteian enough, but when one takes in to account that said protagonist aspires to work on the stage it becomes even more apparent. Note also the recurring references to “Magic”, which is a shorthand for the nature of Frances’ lifestyle when we first meet her. (See. Céline And Julie Go Boating, Le Pont du Nord. In a neat coincidence the latter is released on Blu-ray just 48 hours after Frances Ha makes its theatrical bow)

Similarly Baumbach nods towards the work of Leos Carax, another French filmmaker, albeit one of a different period entirely to Rivette, whose work is also primarily concerned with the nature of performance. The importance of Carax is made explicitly clear early on, as Frances is positioned to directly refer to the most famous sequence in Carax’s Mauvais Sang**, but it’s not merely in that respect to which the two are aligned. Also heavily inspired by the work of Rivette, Carax has a tendency to situation his work around very operatic, almost parable-like figures, drawn in sweeping terms with each one standing for, or representing something. One might easily describe Frances in those terms too, placing her firmly in the tradition of a national cinema that is home to such characters as Vivre Sa Vie’s Nana, Pierrot Le Fou’s titular protagonist and any of Rohmer’s early leads (while an occasional diegetic screen punctuation in Frances Ha also recalls that filmmakers Moral Tales). In spite of these broadly-scrawled character tropes one wouldn’t accuse Greta Gerwig’s performance as being one negatively or forcefully shaped by an agenda to squeeze in as many references as possible, or held back by any kid of imposing limitations. She’s a fully formed figure, and as valuable a female performance as the American cinema has produced in recent years.

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Perhaps the most impressive thing about Frances Ha is the manner in which Baumbach tackles the subject of a sympathy for the privileged head on in the film. A recurring magnet for attracting negative asides (see. most of the mainstream coverage of Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring) the subject of a middle class woe is one greeted fairly obnoxiously by dissenting voices. Here Baumbach subtly brings to light that complaint, inverting and tackling it before anyone else can. Similarly Gerwig and Baumbach deconstruct the notion of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl through the titular character. Both of these incidents are a mark of knowingness that is in keeping with the roots and inspirations behind Frances Ha.

*Although at this stage I’m not entirely sure whether or not The Squid And The Whale belongs to this strand of Baumbach’s work, or the earlier stage. 
**The more suspicious amongst us have cried “plagiarism” in reference to some moments, which is a neat irony given the tactics and intentions of those that Baumbach is looking towards.
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