It’s hard to define exactly what an “art film” is, but you know one when you see one. A few minutes into “Frances Ha,” it’s apparent that this is definitely an art film.
It is self-aware but not to the point of being pretentious. Its style recalls the French New Wave films of the ’60s, had Woody Allen directed one. The film is even in black and white. And at only 86 minutes long, it still feels like it drifts aimlessly at times (just as the New Wave films did).
The film overall is mildly entertaining and occasionally very funny, although it’s overly talkative. It’s definitely character-focused. And at its core is an intriguing personality, the titular Frances, played with gleeful abandon by indie film darling Greta Gerwig (“Greenberg”), who got her start in low-budget “mumblecore” films.
“Frances Ha” is certainly a showcase for Gerwig (she co-wrote the script with director Noah Baumbach), and it’s a vibrant, colorful performance. Perhaps a bit too good. Frances is at once awkward, confident, outgoing, sad and in a state of perpetual denial. Gerwig captures all of it brilliantly.
But Frances’ self-centered habits and absurd behavior become a bit annoying, which weighs down the journey. It’s like hanging out with someone who overstays her welcome. Frances is truly insufferable, even though that’s also what makes her so watchable. She’s a train wreck in slow motion picking up steam.
Though there is a story, the film feels plotless at times. Its goal, however, is to show us the many stages that Frances goes through in ultimately finding herself.
The film starts with Frances and her roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner, daughter of rock star Sting) having fun in their New York City apartment. They’re obviously very good friends.
They’re so close that when Frances’ boyfriend asks her to move in with him, she declines because she’s happy living with Sophie. So the boyfriend breaks up with her, and Frances is surprisingly blase about it.
But then Sophie tells Frances that she’s moving in with someone else in a borough she’s always dreamed of living in. Frances is clearly heartbroken.
From there, she jumps around to living with a couple of guy hipsters to not having an apartment at all to running off to Paris on a whim. All while sticking to a pipe dream of being a dancer in a modern dance company. But she’s clearly not a good dancer.
When her world starts to crumble in on itself, Frances edges into destructive behavior, endangering relationships.
Baumbach has wonderfully explored tumultuous relationships before in “The Squid and the Whale” (for which he was nominated for a writing Oscar) and “Margot at the Wedding,” though they are less scalding but no less potent. He takes great interest in exploring the contradictions we carry in ourselves and ripping those open for the world to see.
“Frances Ha” is an interesting character study, even if it isn’t always compelling. But somehow, you can’t take your eyes away – and that’s thanks to Gerwig.