Some while back, I had come across this lesser known mumblecore film—‘Frances Ha’ and after watching it, I could not help but relate every bit with the lead character despite our varying ages.
Director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver, Michael Zegen
Year of Release: 2012
Genre: Comedy / Drama, Mumblecore
Set in the city of New York, ‘Frances Ha’ is centred around the life of a woman in her late twenties who seems to be navigating through personal relationships while in the pursuit of herself. A beautifully shot monochrome film, the movie upends the usual mainstream perceptions of gender by establishing Frances as a woman who transcends several social expectations. Greta Gerwig, one of the finest actors and screenwriters, who happens to have also directed feminist films like ‘Ladybird’ and ‘Little Women’, plays the role of Frances. A low-budget film, co-written by Greta and Noah Baumbach, it is mainly built-up on the naturalistic conversations between the characters.
Frances displaces the usual male central character and has a carefree disposition, who at the same time is soulfully driven towards trying to make sense of her life by constantly making bold decisions. Throughout the movie, she is seen dancing and running across streets, exhibiting an immense amount of carefreeness. However, even though she trespasses all the expectations that enfold her life as a twenty-seven year old woman and leans towards building herself up on the basis of her passion for modern dance, Frances seems to be wary of change and financial insecurity and hence experiences existentialist angst at several occasions.
The movie can in some sense be seen as ‘episodic’ owing to the efforts of the filmmakers in placing Frances at several locations (specifying the exact address against a dark screen each time) in the span of a single year. Yet, one cannot understand the exact trajectory that Frances undertakes unless they relate these episodes in order.
At the very beginning, Frances is seen to have been sharing an apartment with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), who then leaves her for a flat in another neighbourhood. Frances, who is unable to afford the space all by herself, ends up moving into a living space with the charming duo of Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen) whom she had met through Sophie. She then travels back to her hometown for Christmas after being temporarily fired from her dancing company. Following this, she lives with a colleague for a while, then dares to spend a weekend in Paris and later on ends up as a Resident Assistant at her college. Eventually by the end of the film, Frances is able to afford an apartment under her name. Her gradual growth towards self-fulfillment can be discerned by her shift in these spaces.
An interesting moment is when in the end, she stands in the middle of the doorway of her last apartment, trying to spread her arms but being unable to, she then steps forward into the room allowing herself to lift them. This scene metaphorically speaks of Frances’s quest for freedom and stability that is built up as a result of her experiences.
The Subject of Class
It is important to understand why the subject of class cannot be ignored in a film like ‘Frances Ha’. At several instances as mentioned above, Frances struggles to afford a living for herself and throughout the movie, she is seen to be seeking a financially secure life by means of practising her art.
In this process, she is continually overwhelmed by a feeling of a lack of purpose and opportunities while being bogged down by expectations that are mostly induced by a structure that necessitates a relentless race towards a presumed idea of success, that has its foundations in patriarchy. In one scene, Frances mentions to Sophie that, “The only people who can afford to be artists in New York are rich like Lev.” Yet she seems to be unwittingly engaged in a quest to find herself as well as try to understand what a contented life entails in such a conventional setting where satisfaction and happiness are perceived in relative terms of material success.
Seemingly driven by an existentialist approach towards life, Frances dares to or perhaps has the privilege to use her passion for her art to make for economic independence. In this process, she constantly refuses to give in to a life that is subsumed by superfluous ideas of prosperity and instead decides on not to give up on the possibility of her becoming a professional dancer some day. We live in a society that constantly discourages any kind of economic prospects or mobility for women who seek to be independent and are driven towards defining life’s outcomes at their own behest.
Towards the end of the film, Frances seems to have successfully choreographed a piece of modern dance and gets an opportunity to stage it in front of an experienced audience. The dance act seems to performatively depict the idea of making mistakes, as if speaking of all the turmoil that led Frances to this very moment in time.
Frances, Sophie and The Subject of Love
In the process of making sense of her existence, Frances constantly deflects from the conventional trail of pursuing love and pleasure and seeks for a feeling that might not necessarily be romantic or sexually driven but one that makes space for safety. Hence, she gives herself enough room to rely on other variants of love that might be deeply personal to her, one being that of the comfort she seeks in her female friendship with Sophie, and the other from her passion towards dancing. Not to mention, Frances also depicts that it is completely alright to indulge in the pursuit of self-love and to have a relationship with oneself while not being pressed into engaging romantically with someone else at the same time.
In the opening seconds of the movie, both Sophie and Frances are first seen in a montage scene, flickering about streets and having fun. Thereafter, they can be seen in their apartment discussing about achieving success in their respective professions. Frances seems to be the happiest when with Sophie. This is because whenever they are together, they dream about a life to be spent together.
Frances also attaches a sense of innocence and honesty while navigating through and enduring the difficult outcomes of her relationship with Sophie. For instance, when Sophie moves out of the apartment, this poses a serious emotional setback for Frances. In subsequent parts of the movie, Sophie’s interests seem to be overridden by her relationship with her boyfriend where she is forced to leave her job, and thus the interactions between Frances and her reduce significantly. Yet, whenever the two of them meet, even though by chance, their support for each other never seems to have diminished. Towards the end of the movie when Frances’s dance piece is staged, there is a brief moment where Sophie and Frances exchange smiles, as if saying out loud that some relationships never change.
Why does society deem the choices made by women like Frances as unpalatable?
The initial minutes of the movie enact the break-up between Frances and her boyfriend, Dan who complains that their relationship seems bleak and unpromising after she disagrees to move in with him. Refusing to respect or recognize Frances’s choices, likes and disagreements, Dan’s character reflects the fragility of male ego that is quite typical of a male trait.
On several occasions, an attribute that Benji playfully associates with Frances is that of her being ‘undateable’ which can be translated into the conclusion that she does not succumb herself to the general notion of the ‘ideal woman’ as defined by the patriarchal lens. In one such instance, while still sharing an apartment with Lev and Benji, she finds herself completely exhausted to even step outside. At the outset of this conversation, when she tries to make a reference to a ‘Virginia Woolf’ book, Benji immediately snaps, calling her ‘undateable’ in a light-hearted and amusing manner.
Similarly, in another scene, long after Frances has left the boys’ apartment owing to her inability to afford rent for the same, Benji recognizes her walking on the street in her usual get-up (inclusive of an oversized leather jacket and a rucksack) and immediately describes her gait as ‘manly’. This casualness and amusement strikes a significant amount of attention considering the fact that the rigid and conventional optics of gender conformity set forth a series of expectations for women, subjecting them to possess a certain prescribed disposition. However, Frances can perpetually be seen to be trespassing such gender norms, thus at the same time defining the movie’s centrality as being the story of a woman who chooses to live by her own decisions.
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Shot in black-and-white, the movie provides the viewer with a fresh sense to perceive its meaning (by focusing more on the mind of the central character rather than the colours in the backdrop), as opposed to contemporary colourful cinema. It makes a statement by closely depicting the struggles faced (in the process of attaining self-reliance) by Frances who is simply a woman making space for both herself as well as her art. The movie can be perceived in several didactic ways but mainly in the idea that no matter how long it might take, it is never too late to follow-up on one’s passion and that it is okay to remain a child and make mistakes.
Featured Image Source: SBS