Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach's Film on 'White People's Troubles' Heads to Jerusalem

A tale of women’s friendship and a ‘quarter-life crisis’ in today’s New York makes for a successful new indie film.

Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander

Do I look old to you?

No. Yes. How old?

Older than I am − older than 27.

Twenty-seven is old, though.

That short dialogue, which is spoken in a half-serious, half-jesting tone, was not written by Lena Dunham, who has become the preeminent voice of the “quarter-life crisis” of young Americans thanks to her successful HBO television series ‏(in which she also stars‏), “Girls.” The writer is another star, the 29-year-old actor Greta Gerwig, whose second film as cowriter and star threatens to undermine Dunham’s unchallenged status as the archetype of the young, white New Yorker who can’t seem to break out of adolescence.

“Frances Ha,” written by Gerwig ‏(“Greenberg,” “To Rome with Love”‏) and her partner, the director Noah Baumbach ‏(“Greenberg,” “Margot at the Wedding,” “The Squid and the Whale”‏), is a surprising and finely made cinematic tribute to the French New Wave, the city of New York and female friendship. It is set to premiere in Israel at the Jerusalem International Film Festival ‏(to be held July 4-13‏). I saw the film last September at the New York Film Festival and can report that it’s a delightful, enjoyable work about coming-of-age in the big city, beautifully shot in black and white, with an impressive performance by Gerwig.

Edited at record speed and made on a relatively small budget, the film’s existence was a deep secret for months. In contrast to other press screenings during the 50th NYFF, which took place in half-empty halls, the hall was packed for Baumbach and Gerwig’s film, and it was greeted enthusiastically. The reason for the excitement was the spate of excellent reviews the semi-improvised film received following its international premiere at the Toronto Film Festival ‏(three weeks before the New York screening‏) and, no less, the fact that Baumbach is one of the most interesting and most highly regarded filmmakers in the indie world. Adding to the hype was the local gossip about the blossoming relationship between the 43-year-old director and the young star. ‏(The two gave a joint interview to The New York Times on May 13.‏)

Fortunately, “Frances Ha” is much more than a film that offers a glimpse into a burgeoning romance between two celebrity New Yorkers. In fact, this is the first Baumbach film in recent years to shed the director’s trademark existential gloom and doom in favor of a large dose of humor, humanity and pure cinematic pleasure ‏(though those traits were on view in films for which Baumbach was the hired hand, such as “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which he cowrote with Wes Anderson, and “Madagascar 3.”‏) It’s easy to surmise that Gerwig persuaded him to take part in this project by ‏(a‏) promising that they − and the viewers − would have fun; and ‏(b‏) urging Baumbach to free himself of the burden of expectations that weighed on him after his autobiographical film “The Squid and the Whale” ‏(2005‏) made him a leading indie director. That movie, whose subject was his parents’ ugly divorce, won numerous prizes and was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Original Screenplay category.

“There was a version of me making this movie as though it was my first movie, but when I made my first movie, the technology we have now didn’t exist,” he tells Haaretz. “I also wanted to reinvent how I made movies a little bit, so in some ways it was less about budget and more about a philosophy of shooting. I very much wanted to do something small and intimate, with a group of close friends. I tried to create the cinematic equivalent of the pop albums that were recorded in someone’s living room or basement, like the albums Paul McCartney made after The Beatles. I wanted it to look in some ways homemade, but in other ways like a great pop album.”

Like those inspirational musical hits, “Frances Ha” is propelled by a light, almost banal coming-of-age story. The protagonist, Frances ‏(Gerwig‏), 27, lives in Brooklyn with her best friend, Sophie ‏(Mickey Sumner, the daughter of the singer Sting‏), and dreams of being a dancer and choreographer. When Sophie meets a guy and moves in with him, Frances has to start looking for herself in the real world: find a new apartment, meet new friends, and also face up to the fact that she probably lacks the talent to become a great dancer. Most of the film is devoted to Frances’ geographical and psychological quests, which pass through Brooklyn, Manhattan and Paris. As befits a film that seeks to connect Gerwig’s youthful spirit with Baumbach’s more staid and serious tone, “Frances Ha” has a soundtrack composed of pop songs (including David Bowie’s “Modern Love”) along with a musical tribute to François Truffaut’s regular composer, Georges Delerue, who wrote the original music for “Jules et Jim.”

Baumbach said laughingly that he “just ripped off” Bowie’s song from Leos Carax’s 1986 film, “Mauvais Sang.” “I didn’t plan, necessarily, on using ‘Modern Love,’ but in cutting the scene when Frances runs through the streets, I thought, ‘This will do until I figure out what music I am going to use.’ Then I thought, ‘Can I get away with using “Modern Love” again?’ Because there really is no better song to run to than ‘Modern Love. ’”

Indeed, in its most winning moments, “Frances Ha” does manage to convey something of the youthful spirit of Bowie’s early career. In the course of 86 minutes, we get an honest and touching portrait of female friendship in the early 21st century. In fact, “Frances Ha” is one of the first movies to succeed in translating the popular formula of the “bromance” ‏(films that focus on nonsexual relationships between two men, as in all the films by Judd Apatow‏) into a “sismance” − a close and meaningful relationship between two women. They never stop saying “I love you,” and are constantly devising plans for a shared future ‏(without men‏), but their ties are not sexual or romantic.

Gerwig notes that a deliberate choice was made to zero in on the relationship between Frances and Sophie, and not on relationships between them and the men around them. “I don’t know why,” she said, “but I do know that movies about female friendship are rare and underrepresented. When we were writing the script, the love story between Frances and Sophie emerged from what we were doing rather than being imposed. It just became clear that this is the most important relationship in her life, and let’s tell this story this way. Whenever I see female friendships represented accurately, or even sort of accurately, I’m so pleased. And I’m very touched that other women seem to feel that way, too − because I like girls.”

In a kind of affirmative action, the women in “Frances Ha” are complex and empathetic, but most of the men are spoiled, bored and narcissistic. For example, Lev ‏(played by Adam Driver, who plays Hannah’s self-centered lover in “Girls”‏) is a typical New York man who brings a different girl to his shared apartment every night. Sophie’s new partner is a young businessman who is interested exclusively in his career and drags his girlfriend to Tokyo, against her will.

Because the male characters are so superficial, “Frances Ha” sometimes feels like an overlong episode of “Girls.” Another obvious resemblance is the fact that Frances, like Lena Dunham’s Hannah, is suffering from a “quarter-life crisis” and having trouble finding a direction in life, even though she is completely aware ‏(sometimes irritably so‏) that her problems are nothing compared to those of “real people.” When Frances is fired from her dance company and is hard-pressed to pay the rent, she declares to a friend that she is poor. He retorts that she has no right to use that word, because “it’s offensive to actual poor people.”

“Frances Ha” is squarely about “white people’s troubles” and refuses to apologize for its subject matter. It is not an epic, but a local portrait of New York in 2012, which draws considerable inspiration from Woody Allen’s “Manhattan.” Baumbach notes that he decided to shoot the film in black and white partly as a tribute to Allen’s early movies. “We knew from the beginning that we would shoot in black and white,” he says. “I shot digitally and never saw the color, because I had a black-and-white monitor. I wanted to shoot New York like this, partly because of the beautiful, cinematic look of black and white, and to some degree Frances treats her life like a movie.”

Despite the blatant cinematic influences, there is something fresh and very different about “Frances Ha.” For example, Gerwig insists on giving a platform to young women who do not conform to the Hollywood ideal of beauty. Although both she and Sumner turn out, in the flesh, to be beautiful young women ‏(and blondes, too‏), there is a conscious effort to “uglify” them in the movie. Gerwig chooses to wear wide, unflattering clothes, and there is also a scene in which she tries to pop a pimple while looking in a mirror. In a culture in which young female actors such as Keira Knightley, Natalie Portman or Kristen Stewart have a uniform look of an emaciated body and perfect skin, Sophie’s normal figure and sloppy hair and Frances’ awkward, masculine way of walking make an admirable change. When asked about Frances’ fashion choices − a big leather jacket, clogs and split, dry hair − Gerwig replies with a smile, “My mom hates backpacks, clogs and leather jackets, so I made a character just for her.”

Gerwig was also asked about her distinctive acting style, which has made her a star of indie films in the mumblecore genre ‏(movies heavy with dialogue, light of budget and shot rapidly‏). She noted that whenever she is asked how she learned how to act, she remembers Johnny Cash, who said, “I play guitar like this because I don’t know any other way.”

Even though there is something limited about Gerwig’s acting − she consistently plays talented but lost young urban women ‏(as in two other recent releases about coming-of-age crises undergone by young women, “Lola Versus” and “Damsels in Distress”‏) − the script of “Frances Ha” and Baumbach’s direction and editing bring out the best in her.

For Baumbach, too, this is a happy occasion, after 2010’s “Greenberg” received lukewarm reviews and the star-studded pilot he made last year for HBO based on Jonathan Franzen’s best-selling novel “The Corrections” was not greenlit as a series.

All the signs are that Baumbach and Gerwig will continue to be partners in “white people’s troubles.” Still, this is not necessarily a problematic stance. If people who grew up amid the New York intellectual elite should suddenly start to make movies about migrants from Mexico, the result could be embarrassing and patronizing.

To judge from “Frances Ha,” the difficulty of finding couplehood, preserving old friendships and fulfilling oneself creatively, is definitely deserving of cinematic representation. In contrast to “Bachelorette” ‏(a successful and critically well received women’s comedy of 2012‏) or to the concluding episode of the first season of “Girls,” “Frances Ha” tells a women’s coming-of-age story that, for a change, does not end with a wedding. And that choice itself is reason enough to see it.

Greta Gerwig.
Noah Baumbach.



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