Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Further thoughts about Frances Ha and its supermodels

Posted By on 06.05.13 at 01:13 PM

Frances Ha
  • Frances Ha
After I wrote about the similarities between Richard Linklater's Before Midnight and Roberto Rossellini's Voyage to Italy the other day, I thought again about Frances Ha, another recent American film that references classics of European cinema. I've gotten some flak for my short review of Frances, and I can understand why. In it I come off as a regular old sourpuss, harping on the film's style and selling short its astute observations about postcollegiate life. I also failed to mention some of its other virtues, like the screwball rhythm of the dialogue, Greta Gerwig's winning lead performance, and director Noah Baumbach's knowing way of depicting class envy and other forms of insecurity (a consistent strength of his work). This is not a frivolous movie; I just can't get on board with it.

My issue is with how the movie invokes its models. The allusions to 60s French New Wave films are so pervasive that one can't call them mere stylistic quirks. Earthy in the manner of early cinema verite, the black-and-white cinematography evokes that of Raoul Coutard in his collaborations with Francois Truffaut (Jules and Jim, The Soft Skin) and Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless, Vivre Sa Vie, Band of Outsiders). The jumpy editing, which often elides expected narrative information for the sake of a breathless rhythm, also recalls those directors. The use of full-screen intertitles is especially Godardian, as is the ethnographic manner which Baumbach affects to present the social rituals of twentysomething urbanites (shades of Masculine-Feminine). And the movie channels Eric Rohmer (My Night at Maud's, Chloe in the Afternoon) in its coincidences, chaste romances, and succinct montages that convey habitual action and an underlying sense of nonfulfillment.

In one regard, the density of references is appropriate. The early Nouvelle Vague films were, among other things, proclamations of cinephilia, and they contained plenty of movie references themselves. It's well-known that Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, and Claude Chabrol had written film criticism for Cahiers du cinema before they started directing. When they alluded to other movies, often it was to engage with them critically. (Reader emeritus Jonathan Rosenbaum has written often about the critical aspect of Godard's films.) Sometimes this took the form of placing aspects of popular genre movies—Hitchcock's thrillers, musicals, B crime films—in a realistic context; sometimes it entailed applying recent advances of documentary filmmaking to fiction storytelling. In both cases, the point was to rhapsodize cinema as part of life.

By comparison, Frances Ha feels most rhapsodic when it makes contemporary life seem like the stuff of New Wave films. I don't disagree with the sentiment—I love those movies too, and they're some of the first that come to mind when I think about what makes cinema such a vital art form. But I'm uneasy with the way Baumbach applies their formal insights, rooted in a particular time and place, to contemporary subjects. It has the effect of decontextualizing them or, worse, making them seem like mannerist quirks.

Perhaps it's just me. I had similar reservations with The Artist and Blancanieves, two recent movies that paid tribute to late-period silent cinema. With those films too, I felt that the filmmakers' love for their models overpowered anything new they had to say with or about them. This is quite different than the feeling I get from a movie like Jacques Demy's Lola or Before Midnight, which engages in conversation with its forebears and makes new discoveries about them as a result.

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