Film in Oxford: Misfits and Misanthropes – The Films of Noah Baumbach

This week the newly refurbished Ultimate Picture Palace will screen, amongst other films, Frances Ha, the latest release by writer-director Noah Baumbach. Frances Ha stars Greta Gerwig as a privileged twenty-something aspiring to success as a modern dancer in New York. After her friend and roommate Sophie moves out, she becomes unanchored both emotionally and literally, moving from residence to residence and struggling to find focus. Frances’s restlessness and constant shifts of location complement Baumbach’s evasion of narrative structures in favour of sequences of (sometimes barely related) situations and observations, avoiding the stasis that can arise from the absence of a discernible plot.

Gerwig first emerged as an actress with the ‘mumblecore’ movement, the films of which placed heavy emphasis on naturalistic dialogue and amateur aesthetics, and were usually about the experiences of young adults. Despite not being a part of the movement, Baumbach’s screenwriting – in Frances Ha and in his earlier films – certainly has parallels with mumblecore in its observance of the idiosyncrasies of conversation. (Given Gerwig’s connection to the movement, it is tempting to suggest that Frances Ha’s title alludes in part to Andrew Bujalski influential mumblecore film Funny Ha Ha [2005].) Unusually for film, Baumbach’s characters often talk over each other, don’t listen to each other during conversations, or misunderstand what the other is saying. This replaces the fluid clarity – and often, breakneck speed – of dialogue that characterises contemporary Hollywood screenwriters (Aaron Sorkin, for example) with a more faltering and subjectively human approach. In doing so, Baumbach often foregrounds not what a character is saying, but how they are saying it, and – perhaps even more importantly – how they react to what others say. This gives us a window into the minds and lives of the flawed personalities onscreen.

This preoccupation with character flaws has often led to criticism from those labelling Baumbach’s films as misanthropic; his characters can be self-absorbed, self-alienating or spiteful, and as a result can be severely dislikeable and difficult to empathise with. The persistent bickering and maliciousness between characters in Margot at the Wedding [2007] has been accused by many of rendering the film inaccessible (and unappealing) to audiences, as has the emotional manipulation and selfish dependence displayed by the titular character in Greenberg [2010] (played by Ben Stiller). What sets aside these two films from Baumbach’s breakthrough, the highly praised The Squid and the Whale [2005], is that the latter’s characters are caught involuntarily within a negative situation – the impact of two parents’ divorce on their two sons – while in Margot and Greenberg any negativity arises from the lead characters themselves.

To dismiss Baumbach’s (and his characters’) cynicism of the everyday, however, is to deny a cynical worldview a place within cinema – one that might not always be ‘enjoyable’ to watch but that is nonetheless representative of much of life (and many people). In any case, the misanthropic element of Baumbach’s films is ‘redeemed’ by the strength of its script, the acting on display, and/or more amiable supporting characters. Margot features superb cast performances; Baumbach’s collaboration with Wes Anderson on the script for Fantastic Mr. Fox [2009] treated issues of family dynamics with eccentric wit, respecting and expanding Roald Dahl’s source material; and in Greenberg, Stiller’s character is offset by his well-meaning friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans) and sympathetic romantic interest Florence (Gerwig).

Gerwig performs perhaps a more complex function in Frances Ha, acting as both the source of any negativity and the antidote to it, evoking our sympathy more than any of Baumbach’s other lead characters, while remaining a troubled misfit. She is awkward, self-deceiving and self-deprecating – another possible interpretation of the ‘Ha’ in the title is Frances’s inability to say her own name without following it by nervous laughter – and struggles to achieve financial independence, emotional maturity and career fulfilment while those around her are succeeding. (Screenwriter Diablo Cody recently covered similar ground – albeit via a different approach – in Young Adult [2011], dir. Jason Reitman.) As with all of Baumbach’s films, friendships prove more fulfilling (or at least less problematic) for Frances than romantic relationships do, but her family home is – in direct, and refreshing, contrast to the acidity of family life in The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding – a place of sanctity and temporary relief.

Unlike those Baumbach leads before her, Frances remains optimistic, in part due to her youth: unlike Stiller and Ifans in Greenberg, or the lead characters in Margot, Frances looks forwards to the future with expectation rather than backwards to the past with regret. This newfound optimism is in no doubt also thanks to Gerwig herself, who not only stars but also co-wrote the screenplay. If Baumbach’s previous screenplays were semi-autobiographical, Frances Ha seems to perform the same function from Gerwig’s perspective. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Baumbach perhaps best summed up his approach to screenwriting: “I’ve always been interested in … that conflict between how we want the world to be and how the world really is.” With Frances Ha, the lead character’s world might not be all she wants it to be, but she remains hopeful rather than bitter.

Just as Frances Ha departs from certain aspects of Baumbach’s previous scripts, in many ways it also marks new territory for Baumbach as director. Most notably, the film is monochrome, which serves to highlight his influences, predominantly the French new wave (François Truffaut is alluded to in the soundtrack’s use of music by Georges Delerue) and Woody Allen’s Manhattan [1979]. It also lends a stylish elegance to the film, as was the case with Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing earlier this year, and tints it with a suitably melancholic nostalgia. Frances Ha may or may not mark a new, more optimistic direction for Baumbach, but either way it is the latest film to affirm his talent as both a screenwriter and a director.

Also showing at the Ultimate Picture Palace this week are a special screening of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc [1928], with live musical accompaniment by Roger Eno (Friday 13th, 9pm: see last week’s column for an interview with the composer), the director’s cut of Joshua Oppenheimer’s harrowing documentary The Act of Killing (Saturday 14th, 4pm and Monday 16th, 6pm), crime thriller Only God Forgives (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn), and comedy Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (dir. Declan Lowney).

Showing at the Phoenix Picturehouse throughout the week are romantic comedy About Time (dir. Richard Curtis), racing drama Rush (dir. Ron Howard), and Paolo Sorrentino’s reflection on Rome and modern life, The Great Beauty. There will also be one-off showings of Tales of the Night, Michel Ocelot’s series of silhouette vignettes (Saturday 14th, 11am); the first of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s legendary Three Colours trilogy, Blue [1993] (Sunday 15th, 12pm); Umut Dag’s family drama Kuma (Tuesday 17th, 5.10pm); and biopic Hawking, which will be followed by a live satellite feed of a Q&A session with Stephen Hawking from the Cambridge Film Festival (Thursday 19th, 7.20pm).

J. Wadsworth

For up-to-date cinema listings and to book tickets for any other films currently showing please follow these links: Phoenix PicturehouseUltimate Picture PalaceOdeon George StOdeon Magdalen St. If you know of any film events or showings that you think should be included here in the future then please e-mail J. Wadsworth at john.wadsworth@sjc.ox.ac.uk

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