FRANCES HA (Noah Baumbach, 2012, US) – New Wave Intertexts


‘I know when to go out. And when to stay in’, sings Bowie on ‘Modern Love’, the opening track to his 1983 album ‘Let’s Dance’. Bowie’s music disputably transcends context but a song like Modern Love educes nostalgia for the 1980’s occasioning the dissolution of time and space in Frances Ha. Although this film is not contingent in temporal affirmation, the negation to contextualise New York as a contemporary topography signifies an intertext to Woody Allen’s patina of romanticism in films such as Manhattan and Annie Hall. What matters is the city, not the time in which it is set. The same principle applies to Frances Ha, thereby conjuring Frances (Greta Gerwig) into a ball of schizophrenic energy. Her neurosis, an unfolding existentialist crisis, adjudicates her ‘undatable’ status. Director Noah Baumbach first worked with Gerwig in his mid life crisis feature Greenberg starring Ben Stiller. Frances Ha sees Gerwig in the leading role, and in virtually every scene, but also as a co-writer on what is a semi autobiographical script (this fact seems certain when in the film she takes a ‘home for the holidays’ trip that sees her real life parents cast in the roles of mum and dad in her home town of Sacramento). Gerwig’s ascent came through the Mumblecore film genre/movement characterised by a painful naturalism, static camera aesthetic and quirky observations of middle class characters in their mid to late twenties. If Baumbach conveys the sensibilities of a 1970’s Woody Allen then Gerwig infuses the episodic narrative with a Mumblecore naturalism since her continual on screen presence creates an offbeat, beatnik vibe that is both infectious and reminiscent of Diane Keaton’s now iconic Annie Hall. 

Nonetheless, Baumbach and Gerwig’s co-creation of Frances as an ‘un-datable’ New York woman rejects the coming of age orthodoxy by using the alter ego of Sophie (the best friend archetype) to explore a singularly Mumblecore psychosis of twenty something anxieties realizing commitment, personality and ephemeral relationships. Given the despondency Frances is faced with throughout her attempts to kick-start a career in dance, the denouement is surprisingly upbeat and judged with a sensitivity that makes one internalise the memories of such maladjusted yet earnest characters. Baumbach has acknowledged the influence of the French Nouvelle Vague on his films, explicitly stated in the plethora of intertexts in The Squid and the Whale, but he has also said it was Rohmer and not Godard to whom he felt more of a personal cinematic affinity. Before Midnight, Linklater’s latest film, also reportedly owes a considerable debt to the cinema of Rohmer and Truffaut. You could argue that The Squid and the Whale (Godard), Margot at the Wedding (Rohmer) and Frances Ha (Truffaut) form a loose trilogy of French new wave homages by Baumbach and that perhaps the real Mumblecore feature is in fact Greenberg and not Frances Ha. Nonetheless, all three are memorable love letters to both French and American independent cinema. Frances Ha also has one of the best soundtracks of the year that will have you instantly listening to Modern Love on a never ending loop of hyperbolic salutations. 

PUTTY HILL (Dir. Matthew Porterfield, 2010, US)

If Putty Hill is part of the Mumblecore movement then director Matthew Porterfield’s style is altogether more distinct, unique and neo realist. In many ways, Porterfield’s unfiltered and largely observational approach bears more resemblance to the films of Ramin Bahrani and Kelly Reichardt than Mumblecore regulars like Aaron Katz. Although Putty Hill is Porterfield’s second film, it was embraced as if it was his directorial debut. In fact, Porterfield directed a film titled Hamilton in 2006, which clearly and rightfully positions him amongst contemporaries such as Bahrani and Reichardt. Hamilton was shot on location in Baltimore, a working class district that also provides the backdrop to Putty Hill. Released in 2010, I’m not sure if Putty Hill has been given a release in the UK and if it did then it must have been a limited distribution deal aimed at a specialised audience. Porterfield dispenses altogether with narrative and by utilising the perfunctory idea of a death that effects an enclosed community, means that characters and their behaviour within the given social milieu become the real source of audience engagement. Porterfield seems to be testing the audience throughout by repeatedly blurring the line between documentary and fiction. It is not clear if the people we meet are friends of the director or if they are merely performing and recalling lines from a script. Perhaps then given the way Porterfield dissolves the barrier between documentary and fiction, the film transforms into something more organic. Such belief in the notion that characters and stories come naturally out of the landscape and milieu have connections to a neo realist aesthetic and ideology. Ever since Gus Van Sant transported the cinema of Hungarian Bela Tarr into his slow cinema trilogy including the landmark Elephant, the use of selective focus has risen to become a defining cinematographic feature of many American independent films. Porterfield employs such a technique, sparingly though, to train his camera on the edges of reality. And it is a working class reality that Porterfield feels comfortable with especially the lives of seemingly anaesthetised youth cults such as skaters. Putty Hill is a poetic work that at its most simplistic shows us the wasted lives and broken dreams which continue to haunt the ordinary.

Here is the trailer to the film: (IMDB lists the film as having been released in June of last year in the UK)