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Frances Ha ★★★

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A Mailbox of One’s Own


You’ll have to wait until the final scene to make sense of the title, a metaphor for Frances’s (Greta Gerwig) incompleteness, the sense of herself as not yet whole, not yet fully formed, a view she articulates when she finds herself with neither cash nor a valid credit card: “I guess I’m not a whole person.” The apartment mailbox in that final scene also has relevance in that her instability as a person and as a social being is tracked throughout the film—all in black and white—by the places she inhabits (or used to inhabit), each of them insufficient, including home (in a Sacramento suburb, where Gerwig grew up), a Vassar College dorm room (where Frances went to school and met Sophie), a Paris pied-à-terre, whose spectacular balcony is spectacularly irrelevant to Frances’s depressed state, and several New York City apartments.


Above, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), left, and Frances (Greta Gerwig), right,

share an apartment and a life, "like lesbians who don't have sex."


There’s a specificity to each locale, with full addresses shown between scenes, and while that mailbox name signifies a life under construction, putting her name on the mailbox means Frances finally has a place of her own (she cites Virginia Woolf); she’s closer to a whole person than ever before. Frances’s choreography (she’s a dancer) also works metaphorically, illustrating her ideas about relationships—coming together, coming apart, joining and leaving.

 

You won’t have to wait until the final scene to know what has the potential to make Frances a satisfied adult, happy and whole.

 

You won’t have to wait until the final scene to know what has the potential to make Frances a satisfied adult, happy and whole. Indeed, it’s right there in the before-the-titles opening montage: a playful, joyful, high-energy romp with ex-Vassar roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner), replete with those little things (play-fighting, “Ahoy, Sexy!”) that define couples and mean nothing to anyone else. Will this work out? To use the language of “Barbie,” Gerwig’s remarkable 2023 directorial hit released a decade after “Frances Ha,” is Sophie her ending?

 

At 27, Frances is too old to be “coming of age” and yet not firmly in adulthood.

 

That’s what Frances (and to a lesser extent Sophie, who seems mostly oblivious to the dream in Frances’s head) is trying to figure out. To be sure, Frances has other problems. At 27, she’s too old to be “coming of age” and yet not firmly in adulthood; she’s a competent dancer (her chosen profession), but lacks the talent (and the body) to be a regular in a professional company; she's a nice looking young woman, but defines herself (and is defined by others, somewhat comically), as “undatable,” a word that neatly sums up her anxieties about finding “someone,” as well as reflecting the New York City subculture in which her life unfolds. Throughout, Gerwig brings intensity, an inner anxiety, self-consciousness, and a strong screen presence to the character of Frances.


The narrative explores the elements of human relationships that make coupling up fraught and intimacy unlikely.


 

In what has become the signature of Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s film collaborations—they’re co-writers here as in “Barbie,” and he directs—the narrative explores the elements of human relationships that make coupling up fraught and intimacy unlikely. Foremost among these is heterosexuality. Though both Frances and Sophie are into men, this preference cuts against their own relationship (we’re “like lesbians who don’t have sex”). Ordinary nice-guy Benji (Michael Zegen, Mrs. Maisel’s husband in the TV series) seems a possible mate, but he’s too much just a roommate and associated with domesticity—not conducive to romance, and besides, Benji is a friend, and you don’t have sex with friends (“we’re like married people who don’t have sex”).


Lev (Adam Driver), foreground,

is a womanizer, and Benji

(Michael Zegen), background,

is "undatable."

One might imagine discovering a soulmate through sex, but no one in “Frances Ha” has sex except Lev (Adam Driver, an ensemble regular), who is more womanizer than prospective partner. Then there’s the 20s-something culture of pals, which holds every relationship at arm’s length with that word, “undatable.” Too much sex, or no sex—neither leads to an intense relationship, which is what Frances desperately seeks.


Children are something less than an afterthought in “Barbie” and “Damsels in Distress” (the latter, from 2011, starred Gerwig with Whit Stillman directing), as well as in this film (there’s one child, and she doesn’t matter, and Frances’s take on babies is that they’re ego-extensions of adults, the “mini-me”). Gerwig and Baumbach are partners in real life, whose older child is 4; it’s not too hard to think about what this family dynamic might mean for their future work, given how their films seem to emerge from their personal lives.

Frances in her dressing room at the dance studio, about to be told she doesn't have a job there any longer. Greta Gerwig "brings intensity, an inner anxiety, self-consciousness, and a strong screen presence to the character."





For all their apparent cynicism, Gerwig and Baumbach are romantics at heart, consummate believers in the “there’s-one-person-in-the-world-for-me” idea of true love that drives every rom-com, including this one: “that’s your person in this life.”

You’ll have to see the beginning to find out what happens.

 

Date: 2013

Director: Noah Baumbach

Starring: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Michael Zegen, Adam Driver

Country: United States and Brazil

Languages: English (and a little French)

Runtime: 86 minutes

Awards: 1 win and 49 other nominations

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