There is no real story to be found here. This film, directed by Noah Baumbach, is a character study through and through. We follow Frances (Greta Gerwig) as she hazily floats through life, in a sea of poor decisions and pretentious hipster dialogue, drifting from one apartment to another as she fights to both stave off homelessness and figure out who she is. Baumbach and Gerwig have created a wonderfully charming central character, whose wide smile radiates even when the circumstances of her life threaten to take that smile away.
The monochrome cinematography invites comparisons to Woody Allen’s oeuvre, but it makes every shot of New York look like a painting. The soundtrack does some heavy lifting as well; the sequence of Frances bounding through the streets, set to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” is pure cinema magic. But the film has a tendency to just drift, as the main character herself does. It is possible that that is the point, but it does not make for a terribly exciting film. There is a scene set in Paris late in the film. Frances goes there for a weekend on a whim, paying for the ticket on a credit card she has recently received in the mail. While there, she tries to get a hold of a friend who lives in the city so they can meet up. She spends the whole weekend wandering the area, never meeting her friend. Then she flies back home. It’s a wholly unnecessary sequence in a film that seems to have a bit too many wholly unnecessary sequences.
Baumbach has expertly zeroed in on New York’s hipster bohemian art scene, but is that for better or worse? Much of these characters come off as insufferable, with the exception of Frances. It is impossible to overstate just how much of what works in this film can be attributed to Gerwig’s irrepressible charm.
“I like things that look like mistakes.” – Frances
That is not a thing human beings say, yet you believe her when she says it. Here, let’s try another one:
“Don’t treat me like a three-hour brunch friend!” – Frances
Truthfully, I actually like this one, but again: it is not how real people talk. No one in the film speaks the way real people speak. It feels like Diablo Cody – You know Diablo Cody, she wrote Juno – wrote it. One thing the film does have going for it is its breeziness. It does not take anything too seriously. Frances’s economic woes are repeatedly hand-waved away. Her repeated need to find someplace to live is always handled. The film refuses to get bogged down in sadness and melodrama, keeping the tone light and floaty, like its main character.
Frances has a best friend named Sophie, played by Sting’s daughter Mickey Sumner. Their relationship proves itself the heart of the film, as the pair enjoy life together, then undergo a heartbreaking split, then slowly and woundedly find each other again. The parts of the film that work brilliantly are the parts involving the central pair; whenever they are not on screen together, the film slides back into neutral.
I am truly a fan of Noah Baumbach. His films The Squid and the Whale and Marriage Story are two of my favorites of all time, with Marriage Story cracking my top ten films of last year. I have no doubt he made the film he intended to make, and what we have here is an honestly sweet, endearing look at a woman’s attempts to get her shit together. There’s a scene where Sophie visits Frances’s new apartment for the first time, after Frances has moved in with two guys, and she looks around the place and judges it. She says the apartment is “…very aware of itself.” She is referring to the pretension of the artists that live there and are responsible for its decor, but she could just as easily be breaking the fourth wall and be talking about the script itself.