'Frances Ha': Dialogue defines a movie
"Frances Ha" is essentially the story of not growing up in New York, of how friendships can be more complex than relationships, and of the joys and perils of being "undatable."
Considering that Great Barrington can be seen in some ways as an extension of the upper-upper East Side of Manhattan, this New York-oriented film is an obvious choice to close the Berkshire International Film Festival on Sunday.
Writer-director Noah Baumbach and writer-star Greta Gerwig will participate in a Q & A after the 7 p.m. screening at the Ma haiwe. The filmmakers will also attend the closing night party at Castle Street Cafe as the 8th BIFF comes to an end.
Gerwig's Frances came to New York City from Sacra mento to make it big as a dancer, though she is only a fringe member of a dance company. She at least has an apartment with a kindred spirit girlfriend (Mickey Summer's Sophie) but when Sophie wants to move in with a boyfriend and move along with her life, Frances is hurt, jealous, scared and increasingly frantic. But always charmingly so.
The origin of "Frances Ha" was in Baumbach's determination to work again with Gerwig, who appeared in his 2010 comedy-drama "Greenberg." He also wanted to film in New York, so he and Gerwig sat down to write something together that would work in the city.
"I write a lot of dialogue, it helps me form a character and a story," explained Baumbach of his writing process in a telephone interview. "It's the same with Greta. We both have an ear for dialogue and we found a vein we tapped into. It was an easy collaboration."
The quirky, funny dialogue does define the movie, with the plot reflecting the meandering nature of Frances, who crashes here and there after she is rendered apartmentless in the big city.
Woody Allen has made plenty of movies in New York City, but "Frances Ha" avoids the glittering landmarks and upscale apartments for some of the gritty, distinctive neighborhoods that make up the fabric of the sprawling metropolis.
"The movie is divided into chapters identified by the specific neighborhoods," said Baumbach, who grew up in Brooklyn. (His acclaimed "The Squid and the Whale" is semi-autobiographical.) "We were led by the anthropology of the characters into parts of New York City that would fit their lives. The neighborhoods we used felt like where someone of this age and economic status would end up."
Baumbach said he wanted the "economic component to be very real," and that component regularly emerges in the amusing assumption of nearly everyone Frances meets that she must have money. After all, she is a dancer in New York. The young guys she moves in with briefly at one point in her journey make that assumption which leads them to conclude that Frances is gyping them when she appeals for a rent reduction.
"These guys choose to live like they do," Baumbach explained. "Frances is truly poor, and she has this old-fashioned idea that you could come to New York City to make it. But Sophie points out to her that the only artists who can make it in New York City are already rich."
Her determination to keep up with her peers and prove to Sophie and everyone else that she can be happy on her own, leads Frances to rash decisions like paying for a solo trip to Paris with a new credit card that just arrived in the mail. There she chats on the phone with friends who think she is still in New York.
This comedy-drama leans heavily on the comic side, thanks to the sharp dialogue and also to the ebullient performance of Gerwig, a verbal and physical comedian whose Frances gets down on life but not out. In an iconic scene, a tracking shot follows Gerwig as she dances and bounds through the streets as David Bowie's "Modern Love" plays on the soundtrack.
" ‘Modern Love' is an up beat pop song, maybe the perfect song," said Baumbach. "I see the movie as a pop song. When she is dancing down the street, the song captures the joy you can have of being in New York, of just being happy to be there."
Baumbach filmed his be loved city in a rich black and white, which the director said was his "intuition," adding that it gives the film "a look that is new and old at the same time."
Baumbach and Gerwig, who are reportedly now a couple, are working on a pair of movie projects. "Frances Ha" whets the appetite for what may come next.