Frances Ha (2012)

Noah Baumbach | 81 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Brazil / English | 15 / R

Frances Ha

Being a ditzy twentysomething in New York, hanging out with friends and going to parties, having a job as a dancer and earning just enough to get by, and nothing quite going to plan but it all kinda being ok anyway — all in black & white? I see why some people love this film. It’s a kind of obvious fantasy life for certain Artsy people. Of course, there’s not much drama in that (not that that would stop some filmmakers), and so Frances’s messy life begins to get messier. It may stop being a fantasy, but it’s certainly relatable to any of us who’ve failed at the things we’d dreamed of doing.

While some viewers find the characters’ lives relatable or something to aim for, I’m not surprised to learn that other viewers just find them really annoying. The primary characters are all twentysomething art snobs, which is a definite phase some twentysomethings go through. Some grow out of it, some don’t. I don’t think the film is idolising them, which is part of what allowed me to enjoy it. If it had presented them as wonderful people living an ideal lifestyle, I might’ve hated them. Not that the film condemns them, but I think it takes them for what they are rather than outright celebrating it. That much is clear by how Frances ends up washing out of that lifestyle — it’s not even that she chooses to reject it; it’s that it’s unsustainable.

Having watched the film with the perspective of being older than Frances, where her life ultimately goes after she’s forced to reevaluate and make changes… well, I guess personal experience of whether your dreams were fulfilled, had to be tweaked, or were totally squandered is likely to colour whether you think the film ends up somewhere realistic or, in fact, with almost-stereotypical movieland optimism. As if that wording doesn’t give it away, I do err towards the latter.

Girls just wanna live in New York City in black & white

To dig deeper into that, I find it hard to process my reaction to the ending, because it’s not that I want Frances to suffer — indeed, in many ways I found it a relief that she got her life on track and seemed happy. I can’t say I was super-invested in her as a character, but co-writer/director Noah Baumbach and co-writer/star Greta Gerwig got me invested enough that, when things were truly shitty, I did feel bad for her, and when she turned it around I was glad. But I also felt like she was lucky. She doesn’t get her dream, but she gets something comfortably adjacent to it. To people who want to make films and are making films (like, y’know, the people who made this film) that probably seems like a “compromised (therefore realistic) happy ending” (as opposed to an “everything turns out exactly as hoped (therefore unrealistic) happy ending”). But to those of us who’ve had to make even greater compromises — who’ve had to abandon dreams entirely and settle for what’s achievable — which, I’d wager, is the majority of human beings — Frances’s fate doesn’t seem hugely realistic.

I suspect the filmmakers believe they’ve created an ending in which Frances didn’t win, but nor did she lose; that she did ok. I’m sure I can’t be alone in seeing it as Frances still winning — not a 100% victory, but whatever she has (85% maybe?) is nothing to be sniffed at. So that’s why I’m conflicted: I’m glad Frances got her 85%; but if you want realism — and, as this is a black & white indie movie, not a glossy Hollywood dream factory, I kinda do — she should’ve got, like, 20%. By that I don’t mean end up living on the street or whatever, but maybe she had to move back to boring old Sacramento, move in with her parents for a bit, get a run-of-the-mill job in an office or whatever — something like that. Depressing, but truthful.

Anyway, it’s still a nice little fantasy for indie kids, so:

4 out of 5

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

2014 #95
Wes Anderson | 83 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Fantastic Mr. FoxQuirky cult-y director Wes Anderson tries his hand at stop motion animation with this Roald Dahl adaptation, in which an all-star cast voice the tribulations of a gaggle of talking animals — led by the eponymous vulpine — who come into conflict with three vicious farmers.

I’ve never seen a Wes Anderson film before, but his reputation is such that I don’t think you need to have to spot that Mr. Fox has been heavily Anderson-ised. It’s probably for the best I’ve not actually read Dahl for decades, because the purist in me would hate it for that. So it’s Quirky with a capital Q, and yet, miraculously, not irritatingly so — it feels like it should be considered self-consciously Quirky, but somehow isn’t. Instead, it’s almost (almost) charming. Whatever, it works.

Ostensibly a kids’ film, because it’s based on a children’s book and it’s animated, I don’t think it really is a film for kids. Not that it’s unsuitable for them, but only so in the literal sense that it’s an animated movie without extreme violence or swearing. A lot of the humour and the storytelling style, not to mention the slightly-creepy animation, are clearly aimed at a more mature viewer. The aforementioned animation was shot at the half-normal speed of 12 frames per second, to emphasis the nature of stop motion. That’s part of the creepiness, but it’s also the gangly designs, and that the animals look like they’ve been made out of real fur (because they have), which ruffles all of its own accord (accidentally moved by the animators’ hands, of course, but when seen in motion…) Honestly, I think it would give some kids nightmares more than joy.

Fox familyCompositionally, I thought I’d get sick of the squared-off 2D style, but Anderson’s cleverer than that. It might look flat and lacking in dimension at first, but that’s the starting point for variation, including some great bits of depth (farmer Bean trashing a caravan is a particular highlight of this), and when it breaks form (like a rabid dog chase) it’s all the more effective. There’s also a fantastic score by Alexandre Desplat. Not your usual plinky-plonky Quirky Kids’ Movie music (though there are instances of that), but something more raucous. Nice spaghetti Western riffs, too.

The main downside is the ending: it kind of reaches a conclusion, but also kind of just stops. It’s like Anderson doesn’t know how to end it… which, as it turns out, is almost exactly true. The ending isn’t the same as the book, because Anderson and co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach weren’t happy with it, but they couldn’t think of anything else. The final moments they’ve ended up with are apparently based on alternative material found in Dahl’s original manuscript, making it faithful (in its own way) while also settling the writers’ desire for a new finale. As I said, I’m not convinced.

(While we’re on trivia, residents of or regular visitors to Bath may spot the recognisable red facade of the Little Theatre towards the end. Its appearance is indeed based on the real one, though goodness knows why.)

Fantasticer in the future?Fantastic Mr. Fox is the kind of film I feel I may enjoy more on a re-watch. Indeed, some comments on film social networking sites (e.g. Letterboxd) do suggest that it only improves the more you see it. Having parked any desire for faithfulness to the original at the door, then, I feel there’s a chance the film’s boundless originality and almost-incidental outside-the-norm creativity may potentially render it an all-time favourite. But that’s something future viewings (if or when ever they occur) will have to ascertain.

4 out of 5