Why Frances Ha Is the Must-See Feminist Film of the Year So Far

Frances Ha opens in limited release today, May 17th.

The most memorable scene of Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s Frances Ha features the title character, played by Gerwig, running through the streets of New York City to the tune of David Bowie’s “Modern Love.”

The camera swims beside her and, like the rest of this black and white film, it’s infused with a sense of romantic nostalgia. Yet, even as your cinephile mind thinks Manhattan or French new wave (or recalls this exact scene from another movie), the absence of color in the film does more than pay homage to the cinema of the past. In the context of Frances’ story it actually serves to highlight what those older classics – like most films – truly lacked. Whether we’re talking Godard and Truffaut, or all those coming-of-age post-collegiate American comedies about love (from The Graduate to recent offerings like Garden State and (500) Days of Summer), we realize – as Frances runs buoyantly through the city – that by marginalizing the voice of women in film we have been missing out on huge chunks of the human experience.

The look of the film, and the name behind it, also gives weight to the story – challenging our stereotypical notions of what “serious” cinema is. Baumbach, the Oscar-nominated writer and director of The Squid and the Whale, uses a light directorial touch here – it’s probably more comedic than anything he’s ever done – and yet it is an incredibly moving picture.

Frances Ha was co-written by Gerwig though, and that’s the real name to remember. At a recent screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival, the two writers explained that while the visual concept came from Noah, the idea for the story was all Greta. People have already made the inevitable comparisons to Lena Dunham’s Girls (which is just a testament to how few young women are getting their writing produced), and like that show, the women in this film talk and act like some actual 20-something women (also, like Hannah, Frances seems to only hang out with white people). But unlike that show – and unlike the stereotypes that Hollywood loves to perpetuate – here is a “romantic comedy” written by a woman that is not remotely about finding Mr. or Mrs. Right.

This film is more interested in how modern adults retain the hopefulness of youth through their friends – and how this process doesn’t necessarily include significant others. It’s not that Frances isn’t interested in that kind of love – she goes on a date from time to time – but it’s not the center of her life.

As a 27 year-old woman in New York trying to navigate increasingly complicated friendships and her stalled dancing career – without the distractions of romance – Frances is already, on paper, something of a revolutionary character. Through Gerwig’s unforgettable performance – which beautifully vacillates between clumsiness, confusion and unbridled joy – she becomes something more, the kind of transcendent figure that only the cinema can provide. Like Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock, she seems to capture the moment.

Bowie sings “God and Man don’t believe in modern love,” but Gerwig isn’t rejecting the past as much as she is exploring the changing conception of love today. Or rather, how it is expanding to finally truly value adult friendships. Watching this proven on screen will feel like a revelation to many young people who are spending their 20s in big cities, going from job to job, struggling to figure it all out while relying entirely on their friends to keep them sane. It’s not everyone’s story (obviously Frances has the privilege to wander that most do not), but certainly one that has almost never been told, from this perspective, on the big screen.

Frances Ha is an important feminist statement precisely because it isn’t overtly about feminism. The challenging ideas about gender are so embedded – so naturally a part of Frances’ relationship with Sophie (Mickey Sumner, who is Gerwig’s equal in every scene) – that you might not notice them at all.

Yet around the 10th time someone calls Frances “un-dateable,” while she’s teaching ballet to girls, counseling young women in dorm room hallways, wearing leather jackets with skirts and going through an epic break-up with her BFF, you start to feel just how different this movie really is.

While capturing the hilarity, awkwardness and anxiety all of us might face in our late 20s – gaining and losing best friends while pursuing what feels like an increasingly impossible dream – Frances Ha says something very specific about gender. It shows us that women can be messy, graceful, sad, funny, artistic, ambitious and caring all at once. You know, human.

Strange to think such an obvious truth could make a movie feel so sublime.

Imran is the Social Media and Communications Director at MissRepresentation.org. Follow him on Twitter @imransiddiquee

4 Comments

  1. Alex says:

    Quick question- do you think it loses weight as a feminist piece if the director left his wife for his 27 year old muse? There’s something about that that ends up not sitting well with me. I haven’t seen the movie thus far, but it’s hard for me to think about feminism in the same way when you know that the creators of the film are sleeping together.

  2. Miriam says:

    Alex: heteronormativity and monogamy moral is not feminism.

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