‘frances ha’ and the nouvelle vague

There’s something very appealing to me right now about books and films whose leading characters have no clue how to be an adult.  (If you, like me, have recently been systematically chewed up and spat out by institutionalized education into the vacuum of the “real world,” you probably know what I mean).  That’s why when I heard that the plot of Noah Baumbach’s most recent film, “Frances Ha,” dealt with a twenty-something choreographer struggling, not to ‘make it,’ but to make rent by maintaining any job in her field…I was already sold.  I expected the film to speak to me on an existential level (and oh how beautifully it did!) but I did not expect for this film, made only last year, to so loudly speak to my taste for French New Wave, aka ‘nouvelle vague,’ cinema, and especially one of my favorite films, “Cléo de 5 à 7” by Agnès Varda.

It seems to me that the stylistic and thematic parallels between “Frances Ha” and the nouvelle vague (and particularly Varda’s film) are part of a deliberate homage to this period of cinematic history.  Yet, Baumbach claims that he used black and white in order to emulate the aesthetics of Woody Allen and Gordon Willis (cinematographer) in Allen’s 1979 film “Manhattan.”  Regardless, I’d like to dedicate some webspace to some of the correlations I noticed, with pleasure, upon my single viewing of this film.

  • Georges Delerue:  Delerue scores appear, most notably, in Jules et Jim (and practically any Truffaut film), Le Mepris, and Hiroshima mon amour (links to his songs from these films, all beautiful on their own).  In a certain sense, Delerue is THE composer of the nouvelle vague.  In this video from a press function at the Berlin International Film Festival, Baumbach explains his choice in using Delerue in the “Frances Ha,” saying, “we wanted really big, grand, romantic, joyful music for the movie” and so he tried out a bunch of Delerue songs while editing.  At first Baumbach was wary of what could easily be too literal a homage to “all those French New Wave movies that I steal from anyway,” but he eventually discovered that his film could support this grand, almost mythic music and that “it wasn’t referential in an annoying way.”
  • “Frances Ha-“:  According to the brilliant critic, Richard Brody at the New Yorker, the title of “Frances Ha” (revealed at the end of the film to be as much of ‘Frances Halladay’ as she can fit onto her mailbox) is a reference to Godard’s “Made in the USA.”  In Godard’s film, “characters…make frequent reference to someone whose last name is never heard in its entirety but is blasted over by dubbed-in gunshots, ringing phones, or horn honks: ‘Richard Po—.'”
  • Mirrors: In “Cléo de 5 à 7,” mirrors play a very important role, visually and thematically.  The film follows two hours in the life of Cléo as she waits to find out the results of a test which will determine if she has cancer.  She sees her beauty as evidence of her vitality, and thus obsessively checks herself in mirrors (windows, any reflective surface) to reassure herself that she isn’t already dead (ugliness=death).  Over the course of the film, Cléo’s self-consciousness wanes, as her proximity to death shocks her into a renewed appreciation of the world and people around her…dramatized in one way by the frequency of her mirror-checking.  I was reminded of this trope while watching “Frances Ha,” when Frances’s friend Sophie blatantly points out that France’s penchant for looking at herself is one of her many quirks.  Indeed, Frances checks herself for poppable zits and imperfections much in the same way as Cléo, revealing a similar obsession with her physical self and ideals of feminine beauty.

  • “La Grande blonde”:  Varda once referred to Corinne Marchand, the actress who plays Cléo Victoire in “Cléo de 5 à 7,” as “la grande blonde,” or “the big blonde.”  Simply, Greta Gerwig is also a taller-than-normal  blonde female whose size is alluded to in “Frances Ha” as a distinctive quality.  It’s a shallow similarity of human aesthetics, but a deeper similarity emerges in the way that the two films use tall, blonde women who could easily be caricatures of feminine beauty, in roles that question the relevance of such beauty in the face of greater issues, like personal development and death.
  • Female Friendships:  Although female friends play very different roles in ‘Frances Ha” (Frances’s Sophie as a source of obsessive anguish for Frances) and “Cléo de 5 à 7” (Dorothée as a solace to Cléo’s fear), it is clear in both of these films that platonic relations with women offer something that romantic love cannot.

Cléo and Dorothée

Sophie and Frances

  • Deliberate Chapters:  “Cléo de 5 à 7” is a film that is very conscious of the connection between the passage of time and the approach of death.  One way that it emphasizes the role of time is by mapping out Cléo’s time from 5 PM to 7 PM down to the minute, showing the temporal duration of each chapter, in text, at the beginning of each segment.  Along with Cléo, the audience feels overly conscious of time as we wait to learn her test results.  This segmentation also separates scenes and the emotional states that Cléo moves through from 5 to 7.  Similarly, “Frances Ha” breaks up its plot into textually-coded chapters, but instead of time as demarcation, each new chapter in Frances’s life is announced by her current address.  Frances struggles to stay in one location for long because her life choices are made in order to pursue her passion of choreography, rather than for financial stability.  Over the course of the film, she moves several times: from living with Sophie, to subletting in a bohemian bourgeois apartment with two male friends, to moving back home with her parents for the winter, to using a credit card she gets in the mail for a brief trip to Paris, to taking a job as an R.A. at her former college…and so on.  Each chapter in her life is marked by her address, and the result is not only a consciousness of her nomadic lifestyle, but a very-location driven story.  The places she lives become more than just the various settings, but active forces upon the plot and upon her character’s development.

“Chapter 1: Cléo from 5:05 to 5:08”

Did you see this film and notice any other interesting references?  Leave a comment below!

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One response to “‘frances ha’ and the nouvelle vague

  1. This amazing piece explains exactly why I LOVED Frances Ha. Don’t forget Varda’s Opéra-Mouffe for its quasi documentary of urban normality, transferred to these shores without losing that uncanny affection for the ordinary.

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