Deirdre Mc Mahon praises a refreshing portrayal of female friendship at the centre of a mainstream movie.
The new film Frances Ha is the latest installment in a trend of work depicting awkward, arty girls, coming-of-age in New York. The co-writer and star Greta Gerwig has confessed to taking much inspiration from the hit HBO show Girls, which uses similar themes and setting. Initially this would seem to be aimed at a very niche market, but in practice it is proving to be universally popular. As for the setting – lovingly filmed throughout Frances Ha – everyone is so familiar with New York from TV and film that it could be crowned capital of the screen world. Many can also relate to the idea of having some creative goal they wish to aspire to, but don’t quiet know how to go about it (guilty!).
This new genre also accurately depicts ‘coming-of-age’ as no longer being an era reserved for teenagers and college students, but can now span from your 20s right into your 30s (guilty again!). It seems to be a general rule that people enjoy watching others awkwardly stumble and fumble through this stage of their lives. From the advent of The Office, this type of cringey humour has proven to be a resounding success. By vicariously watching others embarrass themselves on screen, we seem to lessen the impact of our own cringe-inducing moments. Frances Ha combines all these moderns features with an arty and creative mise-en-scene. With its homage to Truffaut, Woody Allen and Girls, its an refreshing mix of modern day humour shot in a old world style.
Frances Ha is also innovative for another reason. As a mainstream movie co-written by a woman, with a female lead and mostly featuring other female characters, it is something of a rarity. As Hollywood increasingly looks to foreign markets for its profits, the emphasis is on male-dominated action flicks, with females leads fast disappearing from the screen. In the hit films of 2012 from the U.S, just 28.4% of speaking roles were women, compared to 32.8% in 2010. These are incredibly low figures and the fact that they are still shrinking is downright depressing. Not only are women proving grossly under represented on screens, but when they do finally appear they are not often depicted as creatures with any great depth. The majority of modern films now fail what is known as the ‘Bechdel test’, which has three simple requirements:
- The film must have at least two women in it.
- The women must talk to one another….
- …. about something besides men.
This simple and basic test should be a no-brainer to pass in these supposedly egalitarian times, but it only takes a few minutes of contemplation to realise how few movies fulfill any of these brief requirements, never mind all three. Ultimately, that is what makes Frances Ha so refreshing and engaging to watch. This is a very dialogue-heavy film with a mostly female cast, and do you know what they’re not talking about? Men! Yes, they’ve got insecurities, they’ve got career problems, money problems, problems with each other. Of course they’ve got relationship issues also, but the point is that they are not talking about them constantly, as if they are the very essence of being. Thank the sun and the stars for this refreshing change.
The main character, Frances, who the camera indulgently follows throughout, is a single girl of 27 in New York. This is a ripe set-up for a ‘single girl in the city’ crisis made popular with Sex and the City. But Frances barely mentions men and seems to show little interest in having a relationship. Her concerns are with furthering a fledgling career as a dancer and her relationship with her best friend Sophie. At the start of the movie, these two seem to have an idyllic life together in their Brooklyn apartment, smoking, talking and going to parties. If anything this movie would seem to promote this lifestyle ahead of the stressful world of relationships.
The opening of film is a brilliant scene where Frances is trying to break up with her boyfriend as she prefers to spend time with Sophie. It is a gloriously funny and awkward affair as she tries to leave his apartment, willfully interpreting his words as meaning they are breaking up, while he is still pleading with her to move in. One could argue that this is Frances being immature and not growing up, as her friend Sophie eventually does. But that’s another wonderful aspect of this movie: aren’t women due some immaturity and irresponsibility? Must we constantly be depicted as the grown-up, mature, relationship-hungry, nagging 50% of the population? We can be fun, silly and afraid of growing up too.
The most lasting and meaningful relationship depicted in the movie is the one between Frances and Sophie. Ultimately, it is their love story which is the heart of the film, as we follow them through fighting, breaking-up and making-up. There’s a wonderful scene mid-way through when Frances is at a grown up dinner party and clearly out of her depth. As she blabbers on about school friends who no one else knows, you want to shout at the screen: shut up girl, just shut up! Then, just as you think she is too socially inept to function, she waxes lyrical about finding someone with who you can have a perfect hidden, world that can be concealed in a single look across a crowded room. In her world, this person is not a boyfriend but her best friend Sophie. With all the ‘bromance’ movies out there, its nice to see a film about female friendship that doesn’t involve a) talking about men troubles constantly or b) end with them driving off the edge of a cliff. Here are women growing up, messing up, trying to figure it all out and not looking all that glamorous while doing it. And I for one can relate to that.