B&W, 2013, 86m.
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Starring Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Michael Esper, Adam Driver, Michael Zegen
Criterion (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
It's a common jolt many people experience after getting out of high school or college only to realize that their dream job might not be as predestined as they thought. Generations of media, motivational speakers, and politicians have thrived on selling the idea that you can be whatever you want if you stick to it, and a happy ending is always around the corner. Taking a realistic but surprisingly sunny take on deconstructing that idea is Frances Ha, perhaps the most accessible film to date from director Noah Baumbach (and a much easier pill to swallow than his previous, grimmest film, Greenberg). Then again it's not too surprising he went in this direction considering his detour into animated films as a co-writer on The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, with the titular character here often verging on bursting out of the screen like an animated doodle herself. Then again this was also co-written by and stars Greta Gerwig, a current indie star who cut her teeth on projects with Joe Swanberg and headlined films like Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress and the harsh Lola Versus.
Here she stars as Frances (of course), who's soldiering through the second half of her twenties alongside her best friend, Sophie (Sumner). Despite her apparent lack of skill and force of will, Frances thinks of herself as a dancer and goes to enough classes to keep up appearances, but that won't pay the bills. Meanwhile trouble starts when Sophie decides to let their apartment go so she can move in with her new boyfriend, which sends Frances off to a pair of new roommates (Esper and Zegen) who further muddy the waters of Frances' future. In between attempted life-changing visits to California, Paris, and her old alma mater, she tries to keep a positive perspective on the uncertain world ahead of her.
Exactly the kind of film that will either charm or irritate depending on the viewer's attitude, Frances Ha is a wonderfully accomplished and engaging little character study for those open to its charms. The barrage of references to French cinema both classic and recent-ish should have film buffs roped in, too, particularly with a soundtrack heavy of Georges Delerue staples (including nice use of his plucky music from Such a Gorgeous Kid like Me) and a genuinely bizarre, unexpected, and winning homage to Leos Carax courtesy of an '80s David Bowie favorite.
Theatrically released by IFC, Frances Ha springs to home video as one of the first titles in Criterion's dual format program with Blu-ray and DVD discs included in the same set. The digital lensing is one of the very few successful attempts to emulate classic black and white without coming off as artificial or overly precious, and the look overall is an impressive one.The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio doesn't really move much beyond crisp dialogue in the center and occasional music in the other channels, but it gets the job done considering the source.
Criterion is no stranger to Baumbach territory after their earlier edition of Kicking and Screaming, and this one is up to snuff in the extras department as well. The director appears in a sedate but interesting new 15-minute video chat with Peter Bogdanovich, focusing mainly on the New York setting and influence of cinematic classics, while Gerwig and actor/director Sarah Polley get a separate 17-minute piece bouncing around ideas about being a female creative force behind and in front of the camera. This tactic is a useful one for this film (similar to tone to something out of Interview magazine), though whether it would work for all of their newer films remains to be seen. There's also a panel chat with Baumbach, director of photography Sam Levy, and color mastering supervisor Pascal Dangin, who go into detail about using digital lensing to provoke the desired feeling in the audience of evoking classic film while looking like an artifact both from the past and the present. The red band trailer and a concise but enjoyable liner notes essay by playwright Annie Baker round out this satisfying set that should thrill the film's growing legion of admirers.
Reviewed on November 24, 2013.