Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Review: FRANCES HA: Caution as Byproduct

You know one or knew one, depending on your age, the one from your scene who is a complete catastrophe but keeps touch with a certain amount of appeal by not minding being the butt of all jokes and offering an astounding array of loopy but solidly delivered opinions. It never takes long to realise that each "abortion threatens free speech" or "fasting prevents ageing" is only held for the moment it is meant to dominate. Such ambulant miasma tend not to care too much if what they say doesn't hold water then or later when considered in depth. The moment is good enough. The other thing about them is that they are always riding some big ambition ("I'm designing a UFO engine" "I'm going to write the last Australian novel") that will never be reached. But they don't have to get there. It's all in the moment. If this bipedal slice of chaos is under thirty their flamboyant living fiction can be a constant entertainment. After that it starts to look bipolar.

Frances believes she is a dancer. She and her plain Jane flatmate share all sorts of bullshit opinions and cry injustice in their apartment at the centre of the known universe. They are childhood friends and their camaraderie feels genuine. Frances is liked at the dance company where she is an apprentice but is continually being passed over for stage roles. She breaks up with her prissy boyfriend because he wants to buy her a pair of cats but that's really all about whether they should move in together or not. Her flatmate moves out to a part of town that the perpetually broke Frances can't afford. She can't keep the flat they are in by herself so moves in with someone she recently met at a party and then dined with and then subjected to an infuriating attempt at cashing a cheque and ....

Well, look, the thing about this film is that if you can stand Frances you might well love it. I found her exhausting and full of shit. I know that I'm meant to watch in horror as she wrong foots or makes disastrous decisions (sorry, why did she just decide to go to Paris again?) and I know I'm meant to feel sympathy with her when things catch up and she is brought to humility but I can't. Even when she finally does something sensible she comes across as medicated rather than educated. If you've ever had to stop your heart from bursting at spending time with a friend who has suffered psychiatric torment but is now chemically becalmed you will fight back tears at each of their smiles, believing it (however wrongly) to be a byproduct of medication. That's how I see Frances at the end of this story, minus the friendship; Elwood P. Dowd who has taken the treatment and said goodbye to Harvey.

The problem is that I hate Frances. I hate her from the first scene. She reminds me of Max Fischer in Rushmore and how I hated that film and how that hatred has never found relief in any subsequent outing by that director, ever. I hate Frances like I hated Violet in the execrable Damsels in Distress. I possibly even hate Greta Gerwig who played both Violet and Frances in almost identical performances. However nuanced and complex she plays these roles (and there is real talent there) I just seem to hate her more.

I also noted while watching that the black and white look reminded me not so much of Manhattan or Bande a Part but the quirky 80s black and white arthouse pieces like She's Gotta Have It or Stranger than Paradise. At one point Sophie jibes that an apartment she's visiting is "very aware of itself". Well, yes, we get it. To be fair, it's subtle but it's also cute and the fact that the title's meaning, delivered in the final shot, is also cute can only lose my vote.

If this is a cautionary tale the caution comes not from the decision about her future that Frances must face and how she deals with it but in how we ourselves might better meet the storming quirkiness of our friends with tenderness and understanding rather than indulgence. I remember people from my youth who were like her and the memory is usually an unpleasant one, mixing sadness with renewed irritation which creates a sour taste. The worst of this film and its central character, though, can be summed up in a single exchange from an old Simpsons episode. Bart tries to lip read a distant conversation through binoculars (like Charles Bronson in The Mechanic) but fails. "I thought you said you could lip read," says Millhouse. "I assumed I could," replies Bart, quickly forgetting that he even tried.

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