David Bowie’s “Modern Love” has been utilized plenty of times on screen before, but never as well as early on in Frances Ha, when Greta Gerwig’s titular Frances dances down the street to Bowie’s accompaniment, in a sequence so unabashedly joyous, it’s seemingly out-of-place in a coming-of-age story. For Frances though, it’s perfectly emblematic.
Though Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha was conceived and filmed prior to the airing of HBO’s Girls, the two are thematically linked as portraits of young, broke attempts to figure it all out in New York. Yet Frances Ha distinguishes itself from Girls and its ilk by sheer force of charm and verve. Sure, you’ve seen other post-college New York coming-of-age stories, but not one this relentlessly good-natured. Girls presents your twenties as a minefield of heartbreak and embarrassment. Frances Ha acknowledges such fears as legitimate, but also embraces that awkward ennui for the adventure that it is.
Of course, co-writer and director Noah Baumbach has been brilliantly mining the stasis of young adulthood since 1995’s Kicking and Screaming. However, in Frances, he (along with co-writer/star Gerwig) has found his gentlest subject yet. From the film’s opening – in which Frances splits up her boyfriend so she can continue living with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), only to of course find that Sophie intends to move out and live with her own boyfriend – Frances remains fiercely committed in her quest to get back on her feet, even if she has no idea how to go about doing so.
As Frances bounces from one living situation (and one social disaster) to another, Baumbach manages to match her exuberance by telling her story with the cinematic language of the French New Wave, with beautiful black-and-white cinematography and Georges Delerue music calling to mind Godard and Truffaut. These signifiers manage to work in favor of what is ultimately very much a Baumbach film: The pacing is (fittingly) breezier than his earlier films, but there’s a pronounced visual wit on display, and the dialogue is just as sharp as ever. In one scene, Frances returns to her former college campus where she peruses Sophie’s travel blog in a student computer lab. When a student asks if she’s planning on going abroad, she replies that she’s long since graduated, adding a specific, hilarious caveat: “there’s no more abroad for me.”
Yet though that dry self-deprecation is a key element of Frances, Baumbach and Gerwig love her too much to leave it at that. The definitive portrait of Frances comes earlier on, as she dances across Chinatown with a complete lack of inhibition and “Modern Love” carrying her along the way. Like both Frances and Frances, the moment is self-conscious but completely loose, cheeky but completely genuine, indebted to what’s come before (in the case of this sequence, Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang) but a true original all the same. And of course, with both Frances and Frances (which just premiered at the New York Film Festival, and IFC is releasing next spring), it’s very hard not to fall in love at first sight.