Sunday, June 02, 2013

Between Philia and Eros: Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha

In the third chapter of my dissertation, "The Dawn Patrol, the Group and Male Homo-sociality," I discuss friendship as a form of love (Philia), in relation to the pre-World War II films of Howard Hawks, prompted in part by the director's insistence that beginning with A Girl in Every Port (1928), he made a number of films that might be best classified as "love [stories] between two men." Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha (2012), from a screenplay by Baumbach and lead Greta Gerwig, perfectly fits this framework, save for a gender reversal that matches the heterosexual Frances (Gerwig) with her true-love Sophie (Mickey Sumner): to this end, it will be Gerwig's attached friend who ultimately returns her knowing look in the film's final act confirmation of the former's verbally signposted interpersonal (romantic) ideal. Of course, and in this sense Baumbach again follows the Hollywood master's decades-old lead, Frances shows a greater intensity in her feelings, which she pursues to the point of a misplaced fidelity (leading to her first-act break-up). Frances's behavior in this respect, as in any post-psychoanalytic work - Hawks fits this cultural frame as well - opens itself up to the question of her romantic feelings (Eros), though the film ultimately would seem to see these emotions as latent and largely if not entirely un-interrogated. Then again, Baumbach's nouvelle vague imitation (see The Small Change poster and the subtle Band of Outsiders quotation) does depart from the Hawksian model in its greater preference for shot/reverse-shot set-ups that bring Frances face-to-face with Sophie, in the traditional facing posture of lovers - rather than in the side-to-side disposition favored not only by Hawks, but by sets of friends throughout the history of Western visual representation (see C. S. Lewis's The Four Loves, 1960). Where Baumbach does avail himself most notably of the side-by-side two, in addition to physical stagings such as that reproduced above, are in those moments where the same-sex soul-mates share one bed, in the film's scenes of maximal, if still chaste intimacy. In other words, Baumbach's camera continues to see his homo-social couple as lovers, even when his visual choices more closely align with those traditionally reversed for depictions of friendship. Philia perpetually hints at Eros - though it importantly does not insist - in Baumbach and Gerwig's Frances Ha.

Though the above footnote essentially exhausts my reason for writing on Frances Ha, I would be remiss were I not to at least credit Baumbach's latest, one of his best works to date, with the intelligence of its dialogue, which to extend the film's New Wave inspiration might be described in terms of a Rohmerian eloquence, an aspirational means of communicating that prevailed in American culture during the pivotal (for the director and my own younger self) 1990s, much more than in the subsequent Mumblecore moment. Laudable too are the film's authentic inscriptions - at least to this experienced writer - of iconic twenty-something New York life, its effective use of musical cues (with the first appearance of Bowie's "Modern Love" representing an obvious highlight) and finally the personal dimensions and hard-won optimism of Baumbach and especially Gerwig's art.    

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