For some, there is security in the stability of others; it is a security that comes from people being who and what they are, being definable, fitting into sets and subsets that do not change, and remaining fixed in that station for as long as possible. Conversely, there is uncertainty in being around those who embody the temporary and chase the illusory. These people seem to bring about a feeling of impermanence that is displeasing to those who seek a more grounded, structured, and defined existence. There is a sense of conflict between the two, as if they are naturally opposing forces. It is as if not completely knowing one's self, or knowing that, for some, the self is a less structured work in progress is somehow an affront to the standards of others and should not be taken seriously.
There is a telling moment in Noah Baumbach's terrific 'Frances Ha' that seems to exemplify this notion of knowing the self, and yet knowing that the definition is perhaps an unattainable goal. While seated at a dinner party, engaged in conversation with strangers, and accompanied by a temporary roommate who doesn't even like her, Greta Gerwig's titular Frances asks Josh Hamilton what he does (he's a lawyer), and when he asks the question back, it's difficult for Frances to respond. She is a dancer, but she currently doesn't make a living doing it, so she finds it hard to define herself in that way. The expectation is that people define themselves by what they do, but that leaves little room for the many other components that make up an individual. The disparity between is and does makes all the difference in the world. For Frances, it is like being in limbo, caught between two worlds: the fanciful and the physical – the dream of one's self and the frustrating reality that is only a discomforting half-truth.
In many ways, the movie is traipsing around the same territory as Baumbach's first film, 'Kicking and Screaming,' which looked at that sort of "…okay, what's next?" moment in the lives of a group of young people just out of college. The difference here is the slight implication that, at twenty-seven, for Frances to be asking herself the same question it is indicative of a deeper sense of longing, and uncertainty as to who she is. There is also the sense that Baumbach is walking over familiar territory to see what has changed in him as a filmmaker, and 'Frances Ha' certainly represents the transition and maturation we have seen in his films since 1995. This time, he takes an unforced approach that is so relaxed and in the moment the film, like its protagonist, is unafraid to make the negative spaces as prominent as the ones that have been filled.
In fact, as a movie about a young woman searching for herself, 'Frances Ha' is essentially about those voids, and the often-aimless search that comes with trying to fill them. But the movie becomes a welcome deviation from the norm by suggesting that the answer to the quandary, or the thing that can be used to fill the void, is not yet another person; it is simply peace with one's self.
Because Gerwig embodies the character of Frances so fully, and gives her such depth, uniqueness, and that often overlooked quality of actually being a person, watching the character arrive at that moment of realization, becomes the axis on which the entire narrative turns. The film begins in the twilight of an ideal, spiritual friendship with her roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner). When Sophie leaves to move into a nicer apartment in Tribeca, it sends Frances into an emotional tailspin. So much of her life had been wrapped up in the comforting stability Sophie brought to her world and her sense of identity (Frances often says, "We're the same person with different hair,") that Sophie's departure becomes the catalyst for the difficult, but necessary next phase of Frances' life.
The movie unfolds through a series mostly consecutive events where Frances spends time in various new locations around New York denoted by title cards introducing a new chapter. Baumbach and Gerwig – who share a writing credit on the film – parachute the audience into Frances' life during seemingly random moments, and this succession of roommates, apartments, and acquaintances gives the film a unique dreamlike quality that better accentuates the protagonist's condition of being constantly in flux.
Frances' extended post-college ennui and subsequent delayed entry into full-fledged adulthood develops a surprising sense of reflective loneliness that belies the joy the film gives you while you're watching it. Unlike its central character, 'Frances Ha' knows exactly what it is: a portrait of a young woman slowly coming into her own, and seemingly discovering a new way of looking at and accepting all the things she was unprepared to at the beginning. Frances' journey asks her to look again, but with new eyes. To highlight this, the film uses David Bowie's 'Modern Love' as a musical cue to a monumentally joyful scene in which Frances runs with childlike exuberance through the streets of New York, not yet aware that she will soon be forced to relinquish her grip on all the dreams she's had for herself. It's the sweet mixed with the solemn; the concession one makes with life that so often signals the onset of adulthood.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Frances Ha' is one of the first Criterion releases to include a 50GB Blu-ray disc and a DVD. Along with the two discs, the release also includes a 16-page booklet featuring an essay by playwright Annie Baker. The spine on the disc reads 681.
'Frances Ha' comes with a strikingly beautiful picture that is notable for several reasons, the terrific 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer being just one of them. The movie is Baumbach's first time working with digital and in black and white, and the results are absolutely terrific. Director of photography Sam Levy shot the movie in full color with a Canon 5D digital camera. Pascal Dangin then transformed the resulting image into the film-like, black and white image through a digital color-correction process that gives the movie its distinct, new wave look.
The image was manipulated to have a more lived-in, less sterile and impeccably clean look than a digitally shot picture typically has. But the result is by no means a distraction for the viewer, and it still leaves plenty in the way of fine detail and texture to be enjoyed. The intent, however, is to develop an image that is evocative of a certain time and period of filmmaking. In that regard, 'Frances Ha' straddles the line between two different worlds: the bygone era it calls to mind and the new one it is utilizing.
But the treated image also has a high level of contrast that produces deep, rich blacks and bright, luminescent whites that sometimes generate a unique halo or glowing effect that enhances the film's dreamlike feel. There is also a great deal of gradation between the two ends of the spectrum here. Blacks are solid and whites tend to glow, but there is an incredibly varied range of grays separating the two. And as the image is free of annoying things like banding, the whole thing feels very smooth, easy, and full of conviction.
As 'Frances Ha' includes a potent soundtrack that includes the aforementioned 'Modern Love,' as well as portions of the score from film's like 'A Gorgeous Girl Like Me,' the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track has more to do than simply ensure the dialogue sounds impeccable. Thankfully, since the dialogue is such an important part of the movie, the mix doesn't skimp there either. Every voice is clear, distinct, and easily heard, with subtle nuances being detected in each. Most of the dialogue is delivered through the center channel speaker, but there are moments during busier sequences in restaurants or parties where voices are spread out a little bit, which gives the sound more depth than you might be expecting.
The film has less to go off of in terms of atmosphere, as Baumbach chooses to fill many moments with music rather than ambient noise. There are times when the sounds of New York are present, but for the most part, the world around Frances is filled with the emotive sounds of influential films and rock stars. But to be fair, each piece of music sounds spectacular and makes the most of the 5.1 format to produce a rich, powerful sound that fills the room without becoming overwhelming. This is a fantastic sounding disc that plays perfectly with the look and feel of the movie.
'Frances Ha' has a kind of infectious joy to it, even though so much of its narrative is spent with a character in search of that very sentiment. Baumbach's touch has never been lighter, and the result is a movie that feels natural, spontaneous, and reminiscent of a spirit of filmmaking fans of Baumbach will be intimately familiar with. If you're a fan, this is a superb Criterion edition that's certainly worth picking up. Recommended.