The Millennial Ennui Of Frances Ha
The absurd paradox of our society is put on display in this Greta Gerwig starring (and co-written) film
I was around six years old when I can first recall a job or career I wanted to have: a meteorologist. My parents had just taken us to see Twister at the drive-in. I’m pretty sure my brother kept messing around with the audio cable. I quickly transitioned to wanting to become a fireman, a gardener, a carpenter, a scattering of ‘maybe I’m good enough to play sport for a living’ (I was not), something to do with science (or that may just be some retconning on my part), and of course, a writer.
None of it has come to fruition. When I was young, time wasn’t a factor in my life. The crushing weight of mortality simply didn’t exist for me. Everyone around me had work, they must surely have been doing the things they wanted to do. As I gravitated towards becoming a writer I was wrapped up in a vague assumption that it would just happen.
For many of us we have been gifted a paradoxical world full of possibilities, encouraged with ravenous enthusiasm that we can do anything. Start ups, self publish, self advertise. Create cards, sites, social media pages, fundraising goals, apps, merchandise. We are classified as millennials. If a word could be in limbo, that would be the word.
Frances Ha captures this paralysing contradiction. The frantic experience, the drifting, the lurching back and forth between dreams and reality, questioning and hesitating with a million emotions within but maintaining a confident and deflecting persona for the world to see. Frances is the millennial version of the every-woman. As the years pass, the film becomes more relevant, more heartfelt, more illuminating in its depiction of struggle to find something meaningful in one’s life to hold onto. As we greet the new decade with all the grace of a drunk baby giraffe trying to outrun a pack of rabid lions, now is as good as any time for a reflection and deep dive into how Frances Ha rides the rail of crippling, universal ennui.
Frances lives in the strange in-between of delusion and reality. Logic rolls around her, brushes against her, remains forever close. She goes through life holding to the vague outline of what she imagines it to be. Shot in black and white transforms the film into a life imagined, bunched memories swirling around nebulous conceit. Fabulously portrayed by Greta Gerwig as a drifting, clumsy spark of jittery light. A reincarnated version of Susan Weinblatt (Girlfriends) sprinkled with seventies era Woody Allen movies and baked in with all the hopes and dreams of struggling artists around the world. The fact that not once does this feel like a parody speaks to how brilliantly written the script is by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, as well as the assured and energetic direction that Baumbach provides.
This delusion presents itself early when Frances and best friend Sofie (Mickey Sumner) talk about what they’re going to do when they rule the world. A moment usually reserved for children and misinformed teenagers. They imagine they’ll be travelling the world together, being single together, working together, growing old together. A daydream that aches with familiarity for the both of them. An opportunity to curl up inside the warm comfort of the future. Akin to imagining winning the lottery: it never happens, but we know exactly what we’d do if it did. We want to believe in the control we have over our lives. Beneath the wine dark night of the world where there is nothing else but our thoughts to spin out the reality we believe we deserve.
And then Frances has to deal with an all time awkward ‘let’s talk about the next step in our relationship oh wait are we breaking up?’ conversation. The story is peppered with these dichotomies, pushing and pulling Frances in a frustrating symphony of equilibrium that keeps her from actually accomplishing anything. Only providing the illusion of forward momentum. Like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Every time I watch it I get trapped in its cocoon of creative angst. It’s addictive, intoxicating and just a little bit pretentious. But to be honest, that pretentiousness is surface level — at least to me. Creative types struggling in the big city are as cliched as one can get but the film recognises that and instead pivots to the perpetual limbo, the terrifying in between of hopes and dreams. This is amplified in no small part by it’s New York City setting. The epitome of ‘the city is like a character’ trope that haunts so many quirky indie films that want to be about something. And yes, in Frances Ha it slides along that trope quite often but it serves to highlight the fantasy world of expectations and dreams. The moment I arrived in New York for the very first time I instantly felt like I had come home and ever since then I have — at varying degrees of intent — attempted to figure out how I can move there. Being there felt like every movie I had ever seen that was set in NYC. It didn’t disappoint. It was cinematic. So when I watch Frances gallivant around New York, struggling to find a place to live, work, enough money to go to dinner, the city becomes a deep shadow — it becomes so alluring and yet unattainable. For someone living far, far away from the lights, seeing Frances already there — the ordeal of moving cast into the mists of unnecessary backstory — represents an extension of that fantasy. Non-existence being ironically exposed.
The city bursts through the screen in pulsating and sweet morsels. A version of it where Frances is somehow poor but not homeless. Where her friends and acquaintances are conveniently available to help her with work, or a place to live. Bite sized slices of a life of a ‘creative person’ that echo the romanticised, distorted past of New York. It’s a temptation that younger people fall into every now and then, that the past was somehow a better place to live. Where people and places and art was more real, more raw, more bold, instead of the corporatised bulbous sameness perceived today. The in-between of living is briskly dismissed for as long as possible by Frances, fueled by her assumption that the life she (probably) planned will eventually happen.
That assumption and the waiting enlarge the ennui. Why do anything when you keep saying you’re doing it? Things work out right? When Frances turns down a job working in admin at the dance studio she was teaching at, it fractures her worldview. Expecting to be extended on as a teacher/dancer in the company, Frances quickly switches her intent, scrambling for confidence to tell the head of the studio that she’s already got plans and work lined up. A hastily remedied fix to keep the delusion from falling apart. She lives in constant turmoil, resistant to maturation and change, pin-balling from one temporary place to live to the next. Never settling or turning her place into a home. What she wants is on the periphery of her and our vision.
Take for instance, Frances’ stay with two achingly New York types, Lev and Benji. Played by Adam Driver on the cusp of turning into the major star he is now, Lev oozes unreachable cool. Sure, he and Frances go on a date after she gets a tax refund (and she naturally proceeds to struggle to complete the simple act of paying — an odyssey that deserves it’s own piece) but it’s instantly recognisable that there’s nothing compatible relationship-wise. Instead, Lev is more like the cool, slightly distant uncle. He has a car AND a motorcycle. Living in New York. That’s like a glitch in the matrix. An impossible combination. He could have easily turned into an annoying cliche of inner-city privilege, but Driver plays him perfectly. Understanding the douchebaggery can be lessened by an underlying caring and friendly nature.
Benji (Michael Zegan), on the other hand, is presented as the potential love interest. A writer of unknown quality that’s always thiiiiis close to breaking into the Saturday Night Live writing staff. Or having his script shopped around. He’s Frances if Frances had rich parents who provided a spacious, expensive apartment in a wonderful location of Manhattan and the financial freedom to pursue whatever dreams they desire without worrying if they’ll be able to afford rent next month. Benji is lovable and caring, a real friend to Frances. If this was any other film, he and Frances would have gotten together. But, as sickening as this might sound, this is not about finding love or a boyfriend but finding oneself. Actually, scratch that, it becomes a reckoning of one’s own dreams. Benji is reduced to being just one element of many arrayed in front of Frances and the audience (i.e me) to compare, reflect and stack up to their own lives.
The New York City in Frances Ha becomes a disillusioned world to me, where everybody’s going somewhere. The film projects constant movement, energy bubbles around every character. I want to be like them so badly but that’s the dysmorphic lure created by a fantasy. Like Frances, we only see these people in flashes, at their best or most interesting. A life curated to make us yearn for it, and pity our own lives. Are they all really working, creating and on the cusp of landing their dream gig? It isn’t exactly disingenuous, but it does appear flawed and, ironically, kind of naive. That’s the subtle revelatory nature of Frances Ha. We all want to live in a fantasy world of satisfying accomplishments with access to a platform for full creative expression if one was so inclined, but this indie cool world that writers and filmmakers constantly turn to is nothing more than a flimsy facade. Most of the time they’re just shuffling the chairs around in the same dusty room, convincing themselves that it’s a different room.
I adore how the film celebrates adequateness. Or at the very least, recognises its prevalence as the dominant form of existence of society. Frances is… a solid dancer and choreographer. Clearly not talented enough to remain in the company — and again, this is an example of inverting narrative expectations. She knows what she’s doing but she’ll never be a superstar dancer like she dreams she will be when she and Sofie are talking about their futures. And that’s perfectly okay. Most of us aren’t superstars. When Frances directs the dance show she created at the end of the film and all the people that have been a part of her life over the year (I assume it’s a year, it’s never really laid out definitively, another example of the nebulous glob that is the passage of time as depicted in the film) come to watch, it’s less of a triumphant moment of success, and more like the sweet relief of something finally going right.
I’m still not sure what kind of film Frances Ha is. Yes I know that it’s played as a comedy, or a coming-of-age comedy, a tinge of dramedy thrown in. Or sort of a platonic romantic comedy. Or the large, indistinct shadow that is an ‘indie film’ film. It’s the kind of movie that is more aligned to comedic realism — occupying a space between genres. It’s certainly not the only film like that. The aforementioned Girlfriends, or movies as varied as Stranger Than Paradise, Paterson, Tabu, The Daytrippers or Breathless — all of these are a blend of different styles and genres. Either stripping it back to it’s most essential elements, or building upon forerunner styles. I could go to the extreme end of the spectrum and view Frances Ha as a type of crushing horror realism — burrowing into the exhausted and uncertain mental state of so many millennials. This is the everyday struggle that defines so much of our lives. And yes, Frances’ adventures are a refined fantasy of what we imagine our struggle to be like, but it is still relatable no matter where the film takes place.
The film is an exercise in understated subversion of genre convention. Maybe it’s just my love and broken obsession over this film but I think I see past the text. God, I sound like a pretentious idiot. Yes, we have insufferable creative types, New York as ‘a character’, the black and white photography, quirky friends, and whip smart dialogue that borders on the mind numbing — if you come into the film with a certain attitude. But it comes across as genuine and achingly tender. No one is a bad person (not even Patch), or out to ruin Frances’ life — only she can do that. It’s a pursuit of happiness that strips away all the obstacles in front of her to make her realise that happiness is always there. It’s not something to attain, but to experience.
This film speaks to me in ways that few films do. I’ll throw in The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and Mad Max: Fury Road as others on a very short list. She tries to have a whirlwind sojourn in Paris after getting a credit card (just an absolutely terrible financial decision) but ends up sleeping through most of the weekend she stays there. I can see that happening to me. I can see myself having dinner with a bunch of successful people and being absolutely out of my element. I can see myself struggling to get the money transferred to the right account to pay for dinner. Or having my expectations crushed emphatically when taking part in a job interview. I can see myself spending Christmas with my family and for a brief moment, feeling like all the things I’m striving for are put on hold, rendered meaningless in the blissful context of the past and childhood.
I’ve gone over two thousands words without going into detail about the relationship at the heart of the film. That of Frances and Sofie’s friendship. It’s treated with warmth and resonance, where conflict arises in organic ways — Sofie moving out, and moving to Japan for example — as not shattering moments that might destroy their friendship but of reminders of the jerky and uneven movement of people’s lives. You can never truly remain on the same track as someone else no matter how long and intimate you know them. Frances struggles to recognise that truth. And yet her friendship with Sofie is the one positive constant in her life. The one thing she knows will always be there in some form.
While getting drunk at a dinner party with people that her temporary housemate — and kind of rival(?) — Rachel knows, Frances expounds on the thrill of knowing when you know the person you uniquely love. It’s a wonderfully absurd but heartfelt ramble. Who among us hasn’t gone off on a drunken, passionate rant, to people we’ve only just met, about what we think love is? The yearning of instant familiarity and understanding through a look. All the history of your relationship is connected in that. The addiction of sameness while everything shifts infinitely around you. It’s that dependence that holds Frances in the stifling ennui. Sofie knows. Rachel knows. Lev knows. Benji… I’m not sure about Benji. I’m glad they didn’t go further than hinting at a possible relationship to form between him and Frances. We don’t need that, and neither does Frances. Change can be frustrating and thrilling, shitty and liberating. It’s also inevitable, reality intruding upon the dreams we wrap ourselves in. Frances Ha is about that lurching rise out of deep limbo when all else has been removed and being to simply capture a moment of unfettered, genuine contentment against a world so intent on telling you that you’ve got to do everything.