A happy-go-lucky dancer with modest talent couch surfs whilst looking for her true calling in that magical, romantic Isle of Manhattan. O! The laughter. The tears. The whimsy. My God! The whimsy! Now, if you have already seen this film and love it to death (as many do), this I trust will be more than enough reason to secure the dual format (Blu-Ray and DVD) edition of Frances Ha from the illustrious Criterion Collection. The gorgeous black and white photography looks absolutely sumptuous on both formats (up-rezzed DVD looks fine, but Blu-Ray is the look to beat) and the film is nicely packaged in Criterion's distinctive housing that includes a decent essay within the accompanying booklet. The sound, by the way (and again, especially on Blu-Ray), is utterly exquisite. Baumbach wisely delivers a great mono-centric mix which is appropriate to the black and white visuals and the tale itself. The extra features on the disc, though, feel pretty lightweight. This sort of makes sense given that the movie itself is as lightweight as they come - especially given that director Noah Baumbauch normally has the ability to sear his humour with red-hot pain that cuts very deep. In spite of this, there are pleasures to be had whilst burrowing into the accompanying short video supplements.
The best of the lot is a phenomenally engaging conversation between Canadian Treasure, film director, screenwriter and actress Sarah Polley with Frances Ha star/co-writer Greta Gerwig. Their rapport is natural and the discussion is funny and insightful. While watching it, though, I couldn't help but think about what a great screenwriter Polley is and how she could have taken the same material and written rings around it. I also lamented the fact that Polley wasn't actually IN the film - there's a role that would have been ideal for her, but it was, alas, not to be. A brief chat twixt Peter Bogdanovich and Baumbach is notable only for how insanely short it is. I'd have enjoyed seeing these two go head to head on a bunch of film-related topics for a good hour or two. The short doc on the film's cinematography is excellent - full of delicious technical geekery. That said, I'd have appreciated hearing Baumbach go on a lot longer about the visual style in terms of narrative and character AND at length with the inimitable Bogdanovich in the aforementioned short. All the technical aspects of the look and sound are "Director Approved", but one does feel a tad shortchanged by the meagre supplements. Fans of the film won't mind at all, but for those of us who vaguely like, but don't love the film, there are so many other things that could have enhanced our overall enjoyment of this Criterion release. And now, on to the film...
Frances Ha (2012) Dir. Noah Baumbach ***
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Grace Gummer, Adam Driver
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Does anybody really like whimsy? Sadly, too many. Especially those who pretend they love art films, but would NEVER be caught dead in the real thing. Instead, this particularly loathsome brand of poseurs will flock to French films that overflow with whimsy. Whimsical properties, you see, are, for this fella', not unlike rivers of copious snot spewing from a crack whore's nostrils.
The French, of course, are masters of this sickening element of cinema that one might as well call it a genre. Amélie is the ultimate nadir of whimsical cinema - so revoltingly twee all I wanted to do was cold-cock Audrey Tatou with a roundhouse to her stupidly winsome face and just keep smashing it repeatedly with my fists (or, for extra flavour, a healthy series of pistol whips across the bridge of her nose). Frances Ha, however, has Greta Gerwig (Damsels in Distress) going for it. Not only is she director Noah Baumbach's girlfriend, she's a major league dish and always delightful. More importantly, Greta smokes cigarettes in the movie and there is absolutely nothing sexier onscreen than beautiful women (well, even ugly ones) who smoke the delectable pole of tobacco. Speaking of smoking poles, whilst watching one of the numerous scenes of young women prancing about Manhattan to the music of Georges Delerue, I briefly conjured up an image of Greta Gerwig slurping down Vincent Gallo's spunk during the onscreen blow job scene in Brown Bunny until remembering it was not Gerwig, but rather Greta's doppelgänger Chloë Sevigny who so expertly sucked the brass off Gallo's doorknob.
But, I digress.
Though the first few minutes of Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha was charming me, I was also getting a few warning tingles not unlike those that rise, almost like bile, whenever whimsical French movies unspool before me. Luckily, a couple of factors allowed me to suppress the need to cold-cock someone. First of all, as mentioned, Audrey Tatou was nowhere in sight and we got galumphing Greta in her stead. Secondly, the movie is not French. It's American, thank Christ. Even though Baumbach layers his soundtrack with endless movie music by Georges Delerue (notably, some themes from one of the most offensive French turd droppings of whimsy, King of Hearts), it's all used in the service of evoking an exotic sense of romance to the Manhattan locations which, serve as a backdrop to this tale of friendship and self-discovery
On the surface, Frances Ha could well be subtitled: Greta Gerwig Gets Her Own Apartment. The title character she plays surfs from one couch to another after Sophie (Mickey Sumner), her best friend and roommate, decides to move into a desirable and tony Tribeca flat Frances can't possibly afford. Everyone our heroine knows either has a job or is a rich kid. Frances comes from modest middle class stock, works as an apprentice dancer and sometime ballet teacher and does so in New York - surely one of the most expensive cities to live in the world. She's 27, can't really dance well at all and her dreams of the future are far too unrealistic - especially considering that her mentor/boss at the dance company can see where Frances's real talent lies - a talent Frances can't imagine she has.
The film is endowed with a simple, vignette-heavy plot, but these set pieces of parties, clubs, dinners, slacking and just plain having fun are always funny, joyous and genuinely moving because it becomes plainly obvious that Frances needs more than her own apartment and a job that fulfills her - she needs to grow-up but also maintain her deep love and friendship with Sophie.
Baumbach wisely chose to shoot his film in black and white which goes a long way to allowing us to accept this fairy tale of a young woman steadfastly holding onto a storybook existence of perpetual childhood. Cinematographer Sam Levy manages to paint some gorgeous images without shooting on traditional film stock. Using a Canon EOS 5D, Levy manages to replicate the sort of lovely fine grain so prevalent in well shot 16-to-35 blow-ups in days of yore. More importantly, the film seems to be timed perfectly to capture the gorgeous old silver nitrate look from the 30s. This proves, for the most part, to be a blessing in disguise, but it's occasionally a curse.
You see, my limited screenings of the film suggest that auditorium size, throw and projector calibration go a long way to achieve the best possible look for the picture. One screening I experienced, the picture seemed murky and with little detail, while yet another was a night and day situation where in the picture had both detail and lustre. As mentioned above, the picture looks great on this Criterion edition, but if truth be told, I think - given the airy qualities of the film - I probably preferred seeing it on the big screen in a real movie theatre which, I did three times and speaks volumes as to its aesthetic success (for me) away from the home format. Annoyingly, though, a big screen experience can only be as great as the cinema it plays in and since most of them are dreadfully calibrated and operated by knotheads, this ultimate experience is so rare that one is ultimately better of with the Criterion disc. (And puh-leeze, VOD, digital download, etc. just doesn't cut it for this or any film worth watching.)
All in all, Frances Ha is a sweet, funny and meandering little movie - chockfull of lovely performances, some deft writing from star Gerwig in collaboration with Baumbach and several sequences infused with pure, unadulterated joy. Most of all, it's so refreshing to see a movie about young, vibrant, smart women where they're not relegated to being mere appendages to the male characters or worse, shoehorned into traditional contemporary chick-flick trappings.
The picture delivers real flesh and blood and though it does border precariously upon the precipice of whimsy, it never flings itself with the sort of offensive abandon the French are so obsessed with into the maw of rancid whimsy that inspires a good upchuck rather than a genuine good time.
"Francis Ha" is available in the USA only in the Criterion Collection dual format edition. A supplement-free DVD is available in Canada from Mongrel Media.