There was a time when screwball comedies, Westerns, and black and white films dominated Hollywood; when each of the genres infused the movie-going experience with distinct personalities. Now, most of these genres are remnants of the past, rarely brought to life—yet this is not the case with Frances Ha (2012). Whether to highlight the aesthetic aspects of the film or to enhance the narrative, Frances Ha is presented entirely in black and white, hearkening back to the films of old. The film showcases director Noah Baumbach’s quirkiness and actress Greta Gerwig’s vivaciousness in all its glory, bringing their visions to life through its stellar visuals.
▲ Frances Ha (2012) main poster. PROVIDED BY IMDB.
Directed by Noah Baumbach and co-written by Greta Gerwig, who plays the titular character, the film Frances Ha is beautifully shot in black and white and serves as an extended homage to classical French cinema. The story follows aspiring 27-year-old dancer Frances Handley as she leads her life as a resident of New York City, facing many different and challenging obstacles such as losing her job, having to pay rent, and confronting relationship issues with her best friend, Sophie.
A major theme running through the film is Frances’s unwillingness to let go of the past and the challenges of adapting toa new environment, namely adulthood. Audience members paying close attention to the composition of each scene will notice the contrast between how Frances initially roams around the city care free and the way she later stumbles through the same areas after she meets someone called Lev by happen chance, representing how her naïve confidence in her abilities quickly deteriorates into self-doubt. Children often start down the path of maturity only after experiencing a significant formative event that shatters their worldview; for Frances, her journey away from childhood starts when she realizes that her dreamsfar outstrip her capabilities. The realstrength of the character comes from her decision to continue pursuing her dream of becoming a modern dancer despite the harshness of reality.
This theme of one’s inability to part ways with the past and the manner in which Frances deals with it will resonate with people who are in their mid to late twenties struggling to get by each day.Played by Gerwig, Frances is charming, silly and endearing but at times unbearably irritating. From playfully fighting with her best friend Sophie to discussing childish issues that no one seems to find interesting, Frances’s actions are characteristic of those about to pass the threshold to adulthood and demonstrate how abruptly the transition from one period of life to another can occur.
Continuing with the theme of nostalgia, Baumbach drapes the film in black and white to better illustrate Frances’s psychological desire to remain a happy child and more generally, a longing to stay in the past. Usually, black and white films are meant to convey moral or ethical implications, but in this case, this look isused to evoke the past and the idea of reminiscence by intentionally calling back to black and white films of old. Approachingthe film’s black and white aesthetic from this thematic perspective adds a deeper layer to the theme of nostalgia and reflecting on the past.
However, even though there was a thematic reason why the director chose to shoot the film in black and white, the film could have conveyed the same message in full color, since audiences were invested in the story in large part due to Gerwig’s performance rather than the film’s black and white styling. While the effect undeniably supplements some aspects of the film, such as bolstering its aesthetic appeal, the film could have served its purpose and succeeded without the additional effect.
The music emulates that of classic French films, filled with romantic hums, jingles, and echoes of flutes, pianos, harps,and violins. In particular, “King of Hearts LeRepos” by George Delerue was a pleasant surprise. This soundtrack captures the melancholy, joy, and overall essence of the film. The abrupt music transitions scattered throughout the film imbues it with a uniqueartistic sensibility. There are multiple scenes in which Frances is seen running and skipping across the streets, smiling to strangers, when the music suddenly stops. This effect adds a sense of unexpectedness to the proceedings—a storytelling device that echoes how obstacles tend to befall Frances out of the blue.
For instance, when Sophie, Frances’s best friend and platonic lover, decides to leave her, things start to fall apart slowly for Frances. As she is held back by one problem after another, her possibilities and dreams start to dwindle, and the music allows the viewers to not only understand that Frances needs to move on to adulthood but also that there is an obvious dissonance between Frances’s dreams and reality.
One minor aspect where audiencesmight be confounded would be in the film’s unique method of storytelling. Throughout the second half of the film, it just shows her drifting away from society not doing anything in particular. She gets paid by participating in a summer event at college; she pretends that her relationships are fine, lies to her superior at a modern dance company and outright invents details about her jobs when conversing with other people. She visits many different places, including her parent’s home and Paris, based on a spur of the moment decision. When Frances is not doing anything, it is hard to escape the feeling that the film is also spinning its wheels, deprived of the narrative momentum that was previously provided by its title character.
Ultimately, there is no going around the fact that Frances Ha, for all its quirks, is at heart a film that embraces the staples of Hollywood film making. From incorporating a black and white aesthetic to evoking asense of childhood nostalgia, to portraying a journey of self-discovery and emphasizing the importance of friendship, the film’s themes and story telling devices are not groundbreaking. Yet Frances Ha is interested not in these themes and devices themselves, but in how they help tell Frances’s story. It takes risks with unconventional soundtracks and narrativeto draw attention to her gradual maturity.More than any other film, Frances Ha is about character. Baumbach and Gerwighave crafted a heartfelt character study that is utterly compelling and, ironically, colorful.