Chaos and Control
Greta Gerwig’s Frances Ha
by Matt Connolly
Auteurism rests somewhere between perceptible fact and necessary fiction. Be it Steven Spielberg or Tyler Perry, Claire Denis or Werner Herzog, certain stylistic, narrative, thematic and/or tonal consistencies across the work of a single director support the underlying auteurist presumption that certain filmmakers do indeed leave a continual and singular mark upon each of their movies. It might seem superfluous to legitimize the continuing use of auteurism as critical rubric in the age of the omnipresent directorial super-cut. (For instance, the video essay site Press Play's home page is currently dominated by such titles as “What Is David Fincher’s Favorite Recurring Detail?”, “Sam Mendes Is a Visual Completist,” and “What If Paul Thomas Anderson’s Films Are All Reincarnations of Each Other?”) However, in an age when the staggering dearth of female directors in Hollywood continues to warrant major cover stories (a trend that extends to the hiring of directors of color, queer directors, etc.), it’s worth considering the continued use of auteurism as a means of not only enriching our sense of an artist’s accomplishments but also validating and bolstering the careers of anyone who does not fit the initial mold of the Tinseltown auteur established half a century ago.
And yet one can grant auteurism’s moderately empirical basis and aesthetic/ideological valences while also admitting that it’s just one preferred practice of viewing. To engage in auteurist thinking is to naturally place one individual at the center of our understanding of how films are to be sought out, engaged with, and discussed. This intellectual move frequently does not come about due to actual research into the specifics of a given filmmaker’s contributions and collaborations, but rather relies upon a fairly impressionistic process of mental sifting and winnowing—a shot that looks like one from that other movie, an idea that seems to link up with our general understanding of the filmmaker’s given preoccupations and “obsessions” (an oft-used auteurist descriptor that tellingly privileges a kind of wild-eyed inner compulsion as the root of quality cinema). Fans of a given filmmaker might give sincerely felt praise to their auteur of choice’s frequent collaborators, but undergirding these acknowledgments of film’s inherently collaborative nature is the assumption that any other artist working on a film can best be understood in relation to the director. And when that centralizing directorial presence cannot be felt in a given work (if the chief creative contribution seems to come from the writer, or an actor, or the set designer), the entire enterprise comes under suspicion. Like any critical tool, then, auteurism casts as many obscuring shadows as it illuminates unconsidered corners of a given body of work—a statement I make with full awareness that it has most forcefully shaped my own notions of film viewing and analysis.
Approaching the film of a favorite director with the intent of positioning another artist at its center, then, can feel simultaneously disorienting and liberating. Running through my mental Rolodex of films to potentially write about for this symposium, I frequently experienced twinges of guilt. How could I possibly displace a figure whose contributions seem so central to why I adore a given film? The intimate nature of auteurism—the sense that one gains insight into the subjectivity of a director through a sustained engagement with her or his work—can make a conscious displacement feel oddly personal. Once you start pulling at the threads of director-centric thinking, though, it’s amazing how much previously unquestioned assumptions begin to feel a little, well, threadbare. Or, to put it more positively, what possibilities open up when we begin to consider how a range of artists can be productively viewed as the beating heart, pulsating brain, and inchoate soul of a given work.
In important ways, Frances Ha fits snugly into the world of its director and cowriter, Noah Baumbach. The IMDb description of Baumbach’s 1995 debut feature, Kicking and Screaming—“Following graduation, a handful of college students do nothing and talk about it wittily”—aptly sums up much of Frances Ha as well after you’ve moved the protagonists about five-ish years past convocation. A 27-year-old apprentice in a professional dance company, Frances (Greta Gerwig) spends much of the film bouncing from one New York apartment to another after her long-time best friend and roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner) leaves their shared space and moves into her dream Tribeca loft. Her living situation and financial stability seem precarious at all times, yet much of Frances’s time seems taken up with hanging out and talking with a variety of fellow twentysomethings in greater and lesser states of economic and professional uncertainty. Beyond plot similarity, there’s also a love of talk amongst aimless urbanites—smart and literate talk, at once overly self-conscious and blithely unaware of others’ feelings—that one finds throughout Baumbach’s oeuvre. There’s even the occasional dash of autobiography, as when Frances makes a late-film sojourn to her alma mater, Vassar College, to work as a summer resident advisor. (Baumbach also graduated from Vassar in 1991.) In short, it feels more than legitimate to name Frances Ha as a “Noah Baumbach film,” and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit a certain investment in this moniker. I’m a long-time fan of Baumbach’s emotionally fractious intellectuals talking past one another in elegantly executed and cutting sentences, with his roman à clef The Squid and the Whale (2005) remaining one of my favorite coming-of-age stories of this millennium.
Still, doesn’t it feel a little silly to frame Baumbach—that adroit chronicler of Generation X malaise—as the chief architect of a film so plugged into the stops-and-starts, the verbal tics and everyday rhythms of urban life as lived by milllennials? Isn’t there a more proximate person at the helm here, with a stake in such generational portraiture that feels both personal and connected to previous professional achievements? I speak, of course, of Greta Gerwig—star and cowriter (i.e., author, in the most traditional sense) of Frances Ha. If the film speaks to Baumbach’s thematic concerns and narrative predilections, it seems like a logical and inevitable outgrowth of Gerwig’s career as an actress, writer, and director. Gerwig came to prominence as arguably the most notable actor of the mid-2000s Mumblecore moment, acting in and cowriting Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) and Nights and Weekends (2008), the latter of which she also codirected with Swanberg. These films’ shambling, low-fi depictions of twentysomething aimlessness and emotional ennui established Gerwig as both a sharp-eyed (and eared) observer of her particular generational cohort and a particularly funny and singular embodiment of it. She brings this experience to Frances Ha as much as Baumbach brings his filmography. And if biographical detail tends to add that dash of auteurist authenticity, one can point to the presence of Gerwig’s own parents (Christine and Gordon Gerwig) in Frances Ha, playing thinly fictionalized versions of themselves in a blissful sequence where Frances returns home for the holidays to Sacramento, which is also Gerwig’s hometown. In other words, any claims that Baumbach has to authorship of Frances Ha seem just as, if not more convincingly applied to Gerwig.
Claims to authorship shouldn’t become some kind of who-wore-it-better competition. Gerwig and Baumbach’s screenplay should be thought of in collaborative terms, as should their dynamic as performer and director. (That they are a confirmed romantic couple off-screen adds a further extratextual wrinkle to such considerations.) Nevertheless, there is an urgency to weigh the scales a bit in Gerwig’s favor, in part because the omnipresence of auteurist thinking can make even the most thoughtful critics look to the director as the fulcrum upon which all other creative contributions balance. Take, for instance, Ty Burr’s review in the Boston Globe, which falls back on particularly pernicious assumptions regarding the relationship between male directors and female leads. He notes that “the film stars Greta Gerwig, with whom it is hoped you will be as enchanted as the film’s director (and Gerwig’s significant other), Noah Baumbach,” and goes on to describe the film as “a love letter to an actress and her character, but by the end you may feel like an intervention is more in order.” Setting aside the erasure of Gerwig as a cowriter, such a critique rests upon a set of hoary and long-standing assumptions surrounding the relationship between male directors and actresses—a mode of thinking that (at worst) positions the woman as a passive receptacle for the man’s dreams, fears, and desires, or (at best) frames them as muse-like sprites that inspire some combination of creative inspiration and googly-eyed self-indulgence in the usually sober-minded gentleman behind the camera. Even critics who avoid this argumentative trap and give some creative agency back to the actress in question tend to frame her contributions in relation to the male auteur. “Margot at the Wedding (2007) and The Squid and the Whale vibrated with neuroses and hurt feelings, while Frances Ha shows a new lightness of touch,” notes Stephanie Zacharek in her Village Voice review. “Gerwig, maybe, has freed something in him.” She later notes that the film is “partly Gerwig’s vision too” (and smartly critiques Frances’s odd lack of a sex life in the film), but there’s still the underlying presumption that Gerwig’s contributions as a writer and actress can be best explained as a positive force upon Baumbach’s overall auteurist vision.
Reframing Frances Ha as a Greta Gerwig film, then, allows us to flip this script and begin to think about how her sensibility, biography, and tangible screen presence work in a way that is undoubtedly amplified and complicated by Baumbach’s contributions (as well as those of her fellow actors and behind-the-camera personnel), but ultimately can be understood on their own terms. Take, for instance, the film’s approach to dialogue, which captures a quality of speaking and a relationship to language that feel (to this millennial) both utterly familiar and pleasurably heightened throughout the film. It can be best described as a joining of profound self-awareness and complete emotional sincerity, using a bevy of private in-jokes and heavily air-quoted proclamations as the means through which to express deeply felt sentiments. An exemplary moment occurs early in the film. Frances has just broken up with boyfriend Dan (Michael Esper) and is lounging in bed with Sophie after attending a party in Chinatown. Sophie reads a message from Lev (Adam Driver), a mutual friend whom they both saw at the party, asking for Frances’s number. Frances obliges, Sophie passes it along, and seconds later Frances receives a text from Lev. “Ahoy sexy,” it reads, prompting some back-and-forth between Frances and Sophie. (“Should I text back, ‘Starboard anal sex’?” Frances muses.) It’s a nice slice of the two friends’ sly, easy banter with one another, but the real kicker comes a few scenes later. Frances waits outside of Sophie’s workplace. As Sophie walks through the rotating doors without spotting her friend, Frances calls out to get her attention. “Ahoy, sexy!” she exclaims as she runs toward Sophie to embrace her with a warm hug. It’s a seeming throwaway moment, but Gerwig—speaking with highly self-conscious yet enthusiastic gusto—isn’t just dredging up a bad pick-up line, she’s using the language of private jokes and ironic asides to express the genuine joy of their meeting. I can’t think of many other moments like it in contemporary film.
This combination of arch mannerisms and guileless enthusiasm defines Gerwig’s onscreen presence throughout the film. She has that rare ability to seem both highly attuned to the interpersonal intricacies of the moment and a half-step removed, analyzing her own reactions and responses in a constant state of recalibration. Watch her eyes as she describes to a dinner party her ideal moment of romantic intimacy: a stray glance across a party at her significant other, sharing their secret world with one another for a fleeting instant while the world churns around them. Those eyes shift effortlessly from wide open and intensely focused (maybe too intense!) to crinkled with indecision to searching the ceiling for the right words to bulging with faux-exasperation at her own introspection. Such quicksilver shifts in facial expression, bodily posture, and vocal inflection give each of Frances’s urban misadventures the spark of spontaneity and self-discovery—a crucial counterbalance to the steadily cascading series of setbacks that Frances encounters as the film progresses. When we watch Frances overshare at a dinner party or drunkenly explode at Sophie for her increasing emotional distance or (in one of the film’s most inspired set pieces) takes an impromptu trip to Paris only to sleep through the first half and wander around aimlessly throughout the second, it doesn’t feel cruel or cheaply distanced because Gerwig convinces us of Frances’s fundamental intelligence and kindness—even if (especially if) these qualities seem inseparable from her chronic indecision.
Frances Ha is defined by a sense of drift, but one that acknowledges its double-edged potential: perennial uncertainty and boundless possibility. The heart of Gerwig and Baumbach’s script lies in Frances and Sophie’s gradually deteriorating friendship as the latter moves out, becomes more involved with her boyfriend (Patrick Heusinger), and generally pulls away from the cocoon of affectionate stasis that both protected and contained the duo throughout their early-to-mid twenties. Frances’s emotional unmooring is manifest in her ever-shifting living arrangements, which shift from a cushy sublet in the apartment of slumming rich kids Lev and Benji (Michael Zegen) to a shaky temporary set-up with chilly fellow dancer Rachel (Grace Gummer) to a return to her alma mater and a Vassar dorm as an RA. (These shifts are wryly noted throughout via intertitles, each stating Frances’s current mailing address.) This downward trajectory leads Frances into an increasingly introspective space, but Gerwig never lets us forget the possibility for surprise and connection at every turn. The montage of Frances sprinting and dancing through the streets of Manhattan as she races toward her new apartment proves the much-remarked-upon instance of this infectious spirit. The combination of Gerwig’s ebullient movement, the graceful leftward tracking shots that follow her, and the sardonic vitality of David Bowie’s “Modern Love” on the soundtrack prove a particularly notable instance of Baumbach’s contribution to this feeling (along with cinematographer Sam Levy and editor Jennifer Lame). Even here, though, there’s the sense of Baumbach following Gerwig’s lead. The film’s vibrant black-and-white cinematography and cribbing of musical cues from François Truffaut’s A Gorgeous Girl Like Me connect the film to the electricity of the French New Wave, yet it’s the singularity of Gerwig’s vision of early adulthood in the 21st century that gives these references their buoyancy.
One can plausibly question how far a claim for Gerwig’s authorship can travel. Can we say that her other collaborations with Baumbach—Greenberg (2010), in which she costarred with Ben Stiller; and Mistress America (2015), which she co-wrote and stars in—are also Gerwig-authored? What about her films with Swanberg? It’s always been difficult to put forth claims of authorship for actors, given the premium placed on adaptability and range within our critical discourse around performance. (You arguably can only be an actor-auteur if you stress your essential sameness across your performances—with examples being great screen personalities like Greta Garbo or James Dean—or make your ability to adapt to a wide range of roles a defining and self-conscious feature of your persona, like Meryl Streep.) You’d be hard-pressed to claim Greenberg as a Greta Gerwig film, given how much it depends upon her performance as a kind of stand-in for millennial possibility in the face of Gen-X ennui (as embodied by Ben Stiller’s morose fortysomething carpenter). All caveats aside, the film’s spiky protagonist and thematic concerns of aging and authenticity feel very much within the Baumbach universe. Mistress America, on the other hand, continues the ideas and emotions seen in Frances Ha. Playing Brooke—a 30-ish would-be restaurateur and all-around outsized personality who befriends adrift college freshman Tracy (Lola Kirke)—Gerwig keeps some of Frances’s wide-eyed perceptiveness, but darkens it a bit. The up-for-anything ethos has begun to harden into a shtick, and you can feel the notes of anxiety and bitterness seep through the cracks. There’s something about Brooke that feels of a piece with Frances: a growing body of characters that examine the vicissitudes of late-20-early-30s white urban womanhood in all its possibilities and pitfalls.
Gerwig will soon be helming her first feature as a sole writer-director, with filming to begin next year. Some will no doubt praise the jump to “full control” over her own art, and it’s hard not to be excited for how directing will shape the ideas and attitudes she’s heretofore put forth in her writing and performances. That one can consider Gerwig’s stepping behind the camera as a development of her authorial voice (and not its unveiling) speaks to the potential inherent in loosening auteurism’s hold on film criticism—less a displacement than an expansion, less a turning away from our favorite person at the party than a promise to not forget about everyone else there too.