A capsule description or logline for Frances Ha might cause a jaded moviegoer to roll his eyes: the foibles of a twentysomething kook in the big city — does the world really need another one of those? And made by a filmmaker who wears his cinephilia on his sleeve (a sleeve that in this case would likely come with French cuffs). Yet Frances Ha far transcends the limitations that description might suggest, through sheer cinematic inspiration.
That the artistic vision is warmly comic in this case is the surprise of the movie. “Delightful” is not a word anyone who writes about indie films has cause to resort to often, so I’m happy to use it as the highest superlative here. The movie also exemplifies how laughs need not come at the expense of depth, or filmmaking artistry. (Which certainly wouldn’t have been news to anyone in the Hollywood of the ’30 or ‘40s, but nowadays it’s virtually a given that an American comedy will be visually nondescript, if not slapdash.)
Co-written by director Noah Baumbach and lead actress Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha wears its wisdom lightly. It’s astute about the difficulties of being in one’s 20s, especially in such a success-fixated environment as New York City, but — since we are talking about well-educated liberal-arts graduates here — it doesn’t overplay those difficulties as the basis of soul-destroying Angst either.
Frances Ha follows six or eight months in the life of Frances Hallyday (Gerwig), a dancer in New York City who is undeterred to find herself stuck in the “aspiring” category at the age of 27. Actually “aspiring” is too diplomatic; “flailing” is more like it. One setback follows another for Frances. Her gift for inadvertent self-sabotage plays a role in this, and she’s as oblivious as she is irrepressible.
Frances’ career choice is almost painfully ironic given what an ungainly presence she is — she has the air of an awkward adolescent about her, and is prone to manic outbursts of energy. Frankly, she’s kind of a spaz. Gerwig gives Frances’ walk a lumbering quality, and the camel’s-hump backpack that Frances lugs around everywhere doesn’t help. The physical aspect of Gerwig’s performance bears close study: trying to fit in with a roomful of hipsters, Frances can seem bulky and mannish, like she’s the only person here who sweats.
Gracefulness eludes Frances in New York, but she fares even worse in a disastrous 48-hour trip to Paris in mid-winter that’s the movie’s comic set piece. The trip is a spur-of-the-moment jaunt unwisely financed with a credit card she just received in the mail. (I shudder to think of the interest rate on that card.) Frances has talked her way into the use of a Manhattan lawyer’s Parisian pied-a-terre; in a sense she’s trying on a more worldly, glamorous persona that she doesn’t have the means for, as if by simply being in Paris she’ll metamorphose into a fantasy self. But her sole contact in Paris proves unreachable, and in any case her weekend is sabotaged by jet lag and the ill-timed use of sleeping pills.
When she finally gets out into the city, the wit of the sequence partly lies in how Baumbach and cinematographer Sam Levy present Paris in B&W visuals — actually black, white and silvery-grey tones that capture the chilly sparkle of a clear winter night — that evoke any number of classic French films; each new locale, if not each shot, feels like another allusion. The filmmaking shows off Paris in a handful of shots (“a sort of greatest hits of Paris,” in Baumbach’s words) yet it never lapses into travelogue. For all its attractiveness, the city is indifferent to interloper Frances. And for all the atmosphere of the shots, the soundtrack creates a very different mood:
Early in Frances Ha, Baumbach uses excerpts of classic Georges Delerue soundtracks, from the heyday of French New Wave, to score Frances’ fleeting moments of effervescence in New York City — specifically, her moments of giddy camaraderie with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Those quick opening scenes are charming and generous; even struggling Frances can experience epiphanies in 21st-century New York, alongside her beloved Sophie. (The movie disarmed my initial skepticism here: It’s a relief to see the emotional lives of young people evoked, for once, through terms other than indie rock and visuals of a similar lo-fi aesthetic.)
Thus it’s diabolically funny that when Frances finally gets to Paris, Georges Delerue is nowhere to be heard on the soundtrack; instead the whole sequence is incessantly scored to Hot Chocolate’s irresistibly schlocky “Every 1’s a Winner.” The song went Top 10 in the U.S. and U.K. in 1978, but is hardly well remembered today (whereas everyone knows the same band’s “You Sexy Thing” from countless movies and commercials). Did Frances come across this random oldie via the in-flight entertainment on her way over, and is it consequently stuck in her head all through her sleepless, jet-lagged nights?
Back in the dim reaches of early 1999, I chanced upon a used 45 of “Every 1’s a Winner” in a hole-in-the-wall record store in San Francisco, and surely paid no more than 99 cents for the beat-up piece of plastic. Its appearance in Frances Ha caught me off guard in the best possible way; I found myself falling for its sublime inanity all over again.
A slick production, with a robotic disco beat overlaid with frosted keyboards and machine gun–like bursts of electric guitar, not to mention backing vocals that reach a pitch of ecstatic idiocy, “Every 1’s a Winner” is no one’s idea of an ideal soundtrack to a Paris vacation. It’s so comically inappropriate that it’s the perfect cue to how to how out of step Frances is in the City of Lights, and its use is a stroke of genius on Baumbach’s part.
You can relive the torment of Frances’ weekend in Paris with this 1978 clip of Hot Chocolate lip-syncing “Every 1’s a Winner” (and marvel at the peculiar directing and editing choices of ’70s TV):
UPDATE, 1/10/14: 2013 was a good year for Hot Chocolate’s royalty statements. “Every 1’s a Winner” also briefly turned up on the soundtrack to Anchorman 2.