Frances Ha — “Tell me the story of us”

by Rüdiger Brandis

I graduated last summer, I was 24 years old then, and with all these great ideas in my head I moved to Berlin, because that’s what you do if you want to go somewhere as an artist, a scientist or a journalist or whatever you think you are (at least if you live somewhere in Europe this city will cross your path sooner or later). I started an internship and didn’t really think about anything and was happy to be out of school for the first time in my life. And then I started working, nine fucking hours a day, every day, ok I got the weekends off, but you get the picture and after three month I quit. I wasted the rest of my money, which was practically nothing, I didn’t really earn money as an intern and after that got little jobs to keep me afloat and drifted from couch to couch, to hostel, to home and eventually to couch again (couch can also mean a mattress on the floor). And everyone kept saying to me: Write applications, you have to find something, you can’t go on like that … and I knew they were right, but I couldn’t do the stuff they said either, I still don’t want to, I just want to go on living without being told what to do and …

“Shut up, stop whining and grow up!”

Yeah, grow up, funny. But here is the thing: I don’t want and don’t see a reason to. Why should I pretend to be all serious about life, when all I see is a sometimes sad sometimes funny joke? Show me the reason to grow up. So I can change the world? To do things that matter? To find that special person and get a family? I just don’t see it or better: It just feels ridiculous. 
And then a friend of mine recommended “Frances Ha” to me with the words: “We are not alone.”

Frances (Greta Gerwig) is 27 years old and lives in New York. She is a dancer, but still an apprentice. She teaches young kids at a dancing company and lives together with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Summer). When Sophie gets the opportunity to get a room in an apartment right in her dream neighborhood in New York Frances can’t pay the rent alone and has to move too. She finds a room in the apartment of Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen) who she met at a party. But shortly after, the dance company can’t afford to employ her anymore, Sophie moves to Japan with her boyfriend Patch (Patrick Heusinger) and Frances finds herself without a home and work. 
At this point it should be clear why I told you about my life in the beginning of this text. Frances’ journey through New York and my rambling show some resemblance, but it’s not the physical journey that makes “Frances Ha” a wonderful movie about a generation of intelligent but seemingly purposeless people but the general feeling of living that it generates, that feels so familiar to me: A feeling that consists of the need to do stuff without really knowing why. The movie offers its viewers many ways of interpretation and I want to show you just one way to look at it.

“Frances Ha” was directed by Noah Baumbach and he co-wrote the script for the movie together with lead actress Greta Gerwig. The film was shot in black & white, the camera focuses nearly all the time on the actresses and actors and most of the film is shot in medium or long shots. As a result my full intention was aimed at Gerwig as Frances and her friends. Gerwig and Mickey Summer as Sophie portray their roles as young women on the brink of their adult life with ease and present them as believable and complex characters. For one thing this is owed to the marvelous script, which doesn’t get its brilliance through an overall exciting plot but its arrangements of character defining scenes. For another thing the dialouge reaches especially through Gerwig and Summer a level of cinematic realism that I didn’t see since Sophia Coppola’s “Somewhere”. Gerwig and Sophie mutter, stop midsentence to switch to another thought completely and reveal through their expressions aspects of their characters no words could manifest. This may something actors should always be able to do, but it’s the ability to deliver the profanity of their character’s life without any pathos or exaggeration that lets them shine in this film. And it’s this blunt look at Frances’ and Sophie’s life which presents their marvels and troubles without any judgment or a big resolution at the end that makes this movie so interesting and comforting for someone like me. 
If you are already excited to watch the movie (as you should be) a fair warning: The rest of the text contains spoilers.

“Frances: Undateable!”

During the whole film, Frances moves through milieus of young adults who just started their working life in the last years with some of them beginning serious relationships and moving away from their old self, which went on parties and got drunk late at night or were laying in the bed all day doing simply nothing. At the beginning Sophie and Frances contradict these people by sharing a bed because they don’t like sleeping alone, by nursing their best friend relationship to a point where people describe them as an old lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex anymore. Even when Sophie moves away Frances finds in Benji someone with whom she can have a similar relationship. Frances doesn’t look for anything specific; she just wants to keep existing in her little world that worked all these years up till now. In other words she doesn’t want to become like one of these paper cut adults that just relive the paradigms of previous generations. Already the first scene in the movie illustrates this, when Frances and her boyfriend break up. After a discussion, whether he should buy cats or not turns into the question of whether she wants to move in with him, they part ways, because Frances just wants to keep living with Sophie. Her friend is far more important and closer to her than her boyfriend. Never is it explained how she ended up in this relationship but we can guess that it just happened without much thought. Frances liked him, but it never crossed her mind, that they might live together some day. In her relationship with Benji this notion of her will be referenced by him all the time with the phrase: “Frances: Undateable!” Ironically her best friend Sophie engages in one of these suddenly-everything-is-serious relationships with Patch, and becomes the very thing Frances doesn’t want to be. But “Frances Ha” doesn’t condemn these relationships, just the pretentiousness that often accompanies them.

To do something, when you have to do it

So “Frances Ha” circles the questions of necessity to do what is expected of young adults over and over and contradicts usual answers whenever possible: Frances has to save money but rather goes on a two day trip to Paris, which turns out to be totally useless, because the friends she wants to visit don’t return her calls until she is already on her way back. Frances turns down a job offer to pursue her dancing career and ends up working as a guide for new students at her old college and lives in a dorm room again. Frances dines with acquaintances of a friend and tells a young mother that being focused on her baby is still selfish because it’s basically a little version of herself without noticing the possible offense. Before she goes to Paris she even describes the trip itself as a thing she has to do right now, although by convention, it’s the last thing she has to do. And by doing all this Frances embodies this desire to just follow the notions that pop up in your head and don’t really make any sense. She is the little teenager in us that just wants to exist without anyone telling her or him what to do all the time, that just doesn’t want to give in to society’s pressure to make something out of life according to its standards. Of course we don’t really know what these standards are, but we know we don’t want them. “Frances Ha” vows for staying true to yourself while figuring out how it works to be an adult and by doing so it’s one of the best coming-of-age stories I have ever seen. When Frances decides at the end to take a desk job at the dance school she doesn’t give up, she simply decides to try out another way to get a piece of her dream. She doesn’t dance anymore, but rather choreographs her own compositions like her older superior at the dance school always suggested. She had to turn down the job at first, so she could go into the world, look around, come back and decide by herself and not by the pressure of the necessity of a job that she wanted to do this. She settled for something she can accept while not losing the person she were before. Frances didn’t grow up, she found a place in which she is comfortable, in which she can be who she is and who she will become. There is no big revelation and that is the funny and sad realization about life we all are bound to have one day.

Simply romance

But while we are on the way to our very own form of realization, we are not alone and this is maybe the strongest part of “Frances Ha”: Its presentation of female friendship and friendship in general. The movie jumps right into the presentation of Frances’ and Sophie’s relationship by showing the two play-fighting and making music in the park, cooking together and them watching a movie in bed. After a party they discuss the happenings of the day in the bathroom and on their way to bed. They talk about sex, about the people in their lives and the scene ends with Frances asking Sophie to tell her “the story of us”, in which the two will become famous and stay together forever while tending to expensive parties and become bitchy divas. From this point in their relationship they slowly separate after Sophie moves out and spends more and more time with her boyfriend Patch, while Frances stays back. “Frances Ha” describes a typical form of focalization on the boyfriend or girlfriend while old friends are being cast to the side by the dominance of the relationship, but presents it through the eyes of Frances who is just hurt and sad by Sophie’s gradual disappearing. The movie shows how deep Frances’ feelings for Sophie were when she confronts her after she states that she loves Patch, which Frances simply doesn’t believe. She tries to intervene, thereby crosses a line and Sophie retreats. But built on this scene “Frances Ha” illustrates the strong bonds of friendship that are able to bear far more than traditional romantic relationships. Despite Frances’ sadness in the end she doesn’t blame Sophie for her behavior, even if she is angry at first. She lets her go and when they meet again they just pick up where they left off. They know that they hurt each other, but are willing to forgive. When Frances and Sophie finally lay in one bed again, they share their affection for each other without any form of consideration, which is otherwise so common in romantic relationships, “I love you […], good night” is all they have to say to start over again. “Frances Ha” presents friendship in this scene as something undeniably wonderful which can be rediscovered all the time. Frances describes this form of romance already in an earlier scene, in which she states what she wants out of a relationship is this one moment, in which you look at the one you love and she or he looks back and you both know that you love each other without speaking a word. But you are at a party and talk to different people at different sides of the room and your eyes just meet by chance. And consequently in one of the last scenes Frances gets her moment with her best friend Sophie.

Only one thing left to do

So in the end “Frances Ha” reminds us that we aren’t as alone as we often think and that we can really find our own little way in life, which isn’t predetermined, not even by the phrase “You have to find your own way”. It reminds us to recognize the really important people in our lives and not to chase ideas of committed relationships just because that’s what you do to be a normal person. It reminds us to recognize our friends as wonderful people we love without demanding anything in exchange for it and presents friendship rightfully as very dynamic form of love. By this the movie captures like no other the plurality of life, the totally chaotic possibilities of multiple decisions while nothing seems impossible, but everything feels like it. And you know: It’s ok to not have a clue, to not be grown up, because nobody really is and just pretends to be. It’s ok …

And therefore, for me there is just one thing left to do:

I got to go and say “good night” to someone …

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