Depending on your demographic, Noah Baumbach’s latest film, the affecting character study Frances Ha, will quickly bring to mind either Woody Allen’s Manhattan or Lena Dunham’s HBO series, Girls.
At first glance, the comparisons are easy to understand. Like Allen’s film, considered by many to be the finest cinematic love letter to New York City, Frances Ha is filmed in black and white. And like Dunham’s characters in the show that became a cultural flashpoint in less than a dozen half-hour episodes — and has only continued to burn brighter in the pop-culture discussion — Frances, the film’s main character, spends much of the movie in Brooklyn (she also spends time with Lev, who is played by Adam Driver, one of the main characters in Girls).
And yet, by the end of Frances Ha, it is clear that Baumbach, who has written and directed films like The Squid and the Whale, about the disintegration of his Jewish family in Brooklyn, and Greenberg, about a Jewish musician-turned-carpenter who laments his missed chance at success, has created something that stands on its own.
The film, shot in digital video, makes the city into a central character, as did Manhattan, but it is unencumbered with any unsettling May-December relationships. And when Frances fails, as she does repeatedly, there are real repercussions — like losing her apartment — that Dunham’s characters always seem to skirt.
But the character of Frances, as written by Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, who also plays the title role, is possessed of equal parts obliviousness, naivete and perseverance: Even as the audience is silently imploring her not to spend the tax-refund check on dinner instead of on rent, or hoping that she takes the numerous cues offered up by other guests at a dinner party to stop talking about herself, her bruised optimism, her continual vulnerability leaves viewers rooting for her.
Baumbach echoes that sentiment, saying that he, too, became so attached to the character that he wanted something positive to ultimately happen to her.
“I really wanted Frances to get a victory,” he says in a telephone interview. “I had a feeling about the character, and I felt it was important to reward her” at the end of a long series of tribulations both great and small.
Each chapter of the film is delineated by Frances’ address at that time. Most of those addresses are in New York City, giving Baumbach more of an opportunity to make his city a central character, and to showcase its neighborhoods in a lovingly retro manner.
“We were exploring the notion of a 27-year-old in contemporary New York,” he explains. “And with black and white, there is an immediate nostalgia, which I thought was right for what we were doing. It’s the photographic reason for the way I saw the city and the character in the city. I felt the movie should honor the character’s struggle in older ways.”
Gerwig’s performance also calls to mind another era, one where comically gifted actresses reigned supreme. Listening to her cadences, watching the way she fearlessly uses her body for physical humor both subtle and overt (making her a dancer was a stroke of genius sheerly for the way she throws her limbs around) and the remarkable plasticity of her face conveying everything from bemusement to good humor to despair — all within one escalator ride — show that she is a worthy heir to Carole Lombard’s legacy.
In addition to revisiting the messy process of figuring out how to enter the real world that the 43-year-old Baumbach covered in his first feature film in 1995, Kicking and Screaming, the director returns not only to his native Brooklyn, but also to his alma mater, Vassar College. He says that filming in familiar locales adds depth to his work.
“I like shooting in places I have associations with from childhood and from my younger life. I find it kicks stuff up in a way. It was emotional to be there, and that’s a nice place to work.”
It seems that Baumbach rarely gets out of a New York state of mind: He has already begun work on his next film, which will also be shot in digital video and also stars Gerwig, to whom he has been recently romantically linked. He and Gerwig have been writing an animated film about a dog separated from his human family by divorce.
Working in animation isn’t as far-fetched as it seems for him — he wrote the screenplay for last year’s successful Madagascar 3. Baumbach says that he doesn’t approach writing any differently for live action or animation.
“My writing is the same — I’m trying to make it as good as I can. Of course, it’s different — these are talking animals,” not live people. Still, those anthropomorphic wonders of Madagascar 3, like the vast majority of his creations, were right in his wheelhouse — by way of the Central Park Zoo, they’re New Yorkers too, aren’t they?
Frances Ha opens May 24 at the Ritz Five, Second and Walnut Streets, Philadelphia; www.landmarktheatres.com/market/philadelphia ; 215-925-7900