Things That Look Like Mistakes

A retrospective look at Frances Ha and how two people’s love for French New Wave and each other gave us one of the last great comedies.

Things That Look Like Mistakes


Jared Marshall

8/31/2021 2:12 PM

Frances Ha walks into a high class New York bar with Sophie and Patch. She’s further beyond her pay grade than she or any rational member of the audience should be comfortable with, and ready to pick a fight. 

It starts off cordially enough. She wants to get to know her best friend’s boyfriend, which seems sweet, but It all goes south when she whisks Sophie (Micky Summer) away to the bathroom with her, orders the priciest bottle of vodka, and insists Patch (Patrick Heusinger) cover the bill before they leave the table. Unable to cope with no longer being the apple of Sophie’s eye, Frances berates her — physically coiling around her like a serpent to prevent her from leaving the room. It’s borderline harassment… but hey, we like Frances. We know she can do better; after all, she’s not a real person yet. Unamused by Frances’ antics, Sophie makes the logical choice to leave with Patch, but Frances demands they sit back down and insists she leave instead. Ice cubes clink against glass as she pulls an unopened bottle from the bucket, our “hero” leaving the bar with a trip to the Galapagos successfully dampered and a bottle of Belvedere obtained.

Tell me, growing up on a steady diet of Golden Age TV, well versed in the Machiavellian maneuvers of Tony Soprano or any antihero that defined the era, why is this the act of social manipulation that always sticks with me? The answer is simple: I may understand Tony, but I am Frances. I am Frances sprinting down the busy crosswalks of my city in ecstasy, blaring David Bowie in my headphones. I am Frances hilariously unpacking the nature of sexual dynamics with my closest friends. I am Frances agonizing over the obstacle of a service fee. I am Frances enraged by an economy destroyed by the previous generation, stunting my ability to self-actualize. She is not simply a relatable protagonist. Frances Ha uses its titular character to depict a generation of youth facing a reality that media did not prepare them for; a pool of wayward souls grasping in the dark for a semblance of normalcy — because God knows fulfillment might be off the table. Written as a heartfelt and startlingly authentic portrait of millennial angst, Frances Ha isn’t all that out of touch with the Zoomers either.

The film follows a clumsy young New Yorker who's left to fend for herself after her roommate moves out. Her best

friend’s abandonment sends Frances through a comedic gauntlet in which she is forced to come to terms with her adulthood. The film's conception began in 2009 when independent powerhouse director Noah Baumbach and rising star Greta Gerwig meet. The success of Baumbach’s 2006 film The Squid and the Whale had catapulted him into indie stardom. Gerwig was establishing herself as a burgeoning talent, starting out as a young theatre enthusiast who would perform theatre productions in her apartment and becoming heavily connected to the mumblecore film movement of the early 2000's. 

The two form a strong creative partnership on the set of Baumbach’s 2010 film Greenberg and agree to work together on another project. An idea starts to float around about a black-and-white feature where Gerwig will play the lead. The two start swapping ideas and scenes through online documents, eventually deciding it would make the most sense to write the script together. Pulling together a $3-million dollar budget and a skeleton crew, Baumbach and Gerwig put the film together in secret before unveiling it at Telluride Film Festival in 2012. 

Everything about Frances Ha exudes influence from the films of the French New Wave: From the small crew to the whimsy, its reflective outlook & modest budget, but mostly in the creator’s overall approach and how intensely personal the film’s subject matter feels its creators. Scenes like Frances running down the street to “Modern Love” share a spiritual connection to Nana dancing her heart out in Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie and the film’s soundtrack curates multiple pieces from Truffaut composer, Georges Delerue. Baumbach and Gerwig even channeled the energy of Godard and Anna Karina, falling in love on-set before the film’s completion. But the intentions of this influence go deeper than a pretentious black-and-white passion project. On top of writing a new rulebook that would build the foundations of modern cinema, the films of the French New Wave were often centered around the young men and women of 1960’s France, its own swinging culture and artistic renaissance. Films like The 400 Blows, Jules et Jim, Vivre Sa Vie, or even Breathless were painting truthful depictions of their generation’s youth — highly stylized, perhaps, but truthful. Frances Ha simply takes that style of filmmaking and applies it to a new kind of youth — ours.

The story of each character is told by how they move. There’s an attention paid to the blocking in this film that truly contributes to its style. Take Lev, portrayed by Adam Driver in an excellent early turn, for example, who moves with the confidence and swagger of a young man who is economically secure and held down by nothing (or no one, it would seem by the amount of times he comes into frame with a new partner). But nowhere is this attention to movement, body language, and physical comedy more apparent than Gerwig’s Chaplin-esque performance as Frances. Dancing, sprinting down streets, busting into random yoga poses, play-fighting with unsuspecting victims, and tripping spectacularly on her face, Frances’ movements are spontaneous and unhinged. Her rigid shoulder shrug and verbal dismissal after Lev’s proposition during a tour around his apartment is possibly the funniest on-screen rejection in recent memory.

The awkward brilliance of the film’s blocking may hold an off-the-cuff quality, but the execution is far more meticulous than it appears. Gerwig has stated in interviews that she and Baumbach had no interest in improvisation during the production of the film. Every line, every movement, every “AHOY, SEXY!” was meticulously crafted and obsessively reshot to create a feeling of spontaneity. Gerwig said in an interview with Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley that if you reshoot a scene over thirty times, action becomes loose and natural because your body has resigned itself to the repetition. It’s this respect for rehearsal and total relinquishment to the words that brings out Gerwig’s early passion for the theatre. It also, in a way that feels almost contradictory, makes the characters feel more authentic. 

Everything about Frances Ha and its depiction of fear and inevitable acceptance of adulthood feels authentic. One of Baumbach’s most scornful critics, Armond White, has reprimanded his filmography over the years for its classist connotations. Baumbach’s films have been dismissed by some as out-of-touch; a rich man’s misconstrued perspective of working class problems. This criticism isn’t always unfair. I do watch the film sometimes wondering how exactly Frances keeps herself afloat — she certainly isn’t collecting CERB payments. I also wonder if moments like Benji (Michael Zegen) criticizing Frances for saying she’s poor, claiming it to be an affront to actual poor people, is a mea culpa of sorts to such a looming shadow over Baumbach’s work.

But I also know this: I have met people in their 20’s living on their parent’s dime, and I have met people in their 20’s living paycheck to paycheck. If there’s one thing we all have in common, it’s that we are all lost. We might be lost in different ways — some of us might even be excellent at pretending we’ve got it all figured out — but none of us really know where we’re going. It’s part of the experience. Class plays a role in Frances Ha, but the heart of the film comes from the existential charm of what it means to find yourself and how your environment influences that journey. That’s what makes the film so universal. And yes, it has a rose-tinted conclusion;. Frances gets to have her cake and eat it too. She comes to terms with the realities of adulthood while still finding fulfillment as an artist. Maybe that’s too optimistic for some. But in times as tumultuous and grim as that which I am currently experiencing as I transition into adulthood, I think I’ll allow myself some escapism.