Frances Ha (2012), directed by Noah Baumbach and written by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, is a love story. The movie begins with a series of shots of Frances and Sophie, her roommate. These scenes introduce the audience to a refreshingly new kind of love; the one between two roommates. It is truly a poverty of the English language that the same two words are used to describe the love a mother has for a child and the love a husband has for his wife. Instead it would probably be best to borrow from Greek- a language that has seven words for love; the first kind of love we are introduced to in Frances Ha is philia or deep friendship. The next scene introduces the audience to Frances’s boyfriend, a man willing to spend a ridiculous amount of money on hairless cats. This is the second kind of love (or the lack there of) the audience is introduced to, Eros or romantic love. Upon being asked to move in with her boyfriend, Frances rejects the offer to continue living with Sophie. Here, the audience gets a brief glance at the person Frances is at the very core- someone who would choose philia over eros, at least when it came to Sophie. Frances describes their relationship as “like a lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex anymore.” – this pure love, the one untainted by sexual desire, though not entirely selfless is at the very core of the movie.
Shot in black and white, Frances Ha emphasizes emotion and gives the film a timeless touch. Colour no longer distracts, but most importantly colour no longer diminishes possibilities. Frances’ apartment could have yellow walls, or pink ones, or perhaps even red, this ambiguity creates a sort of universality. Black and white reflects multiple realities at the same time. More people resonate with the film and the pivotal character because of this ambiguity created by the decision to shoot the film in black and white.
Sophie’s decision to move in with her friend in an apartment in Tribeca is the turning point of the movie. It captures a different kind of heartbreak, one that is almost always overlooked in films and books; a kind of heartbreak no one talks about and yet it exists. Frances Ha captures just that through Frances’s angry phone call to Sophie, yelling about her kettle. The missing kettle, one that they bought together but is now with Sophie represents all that they have built together that was now suddenly abandoned.
The next chapter of Frances’s life begins when she moves in with Lev and Benji. Frances finds a different kind of love in the boys and also in the apartment itself. This love for the apartment itself and her current living situation could easily be overlooked however it is one of the most underrated kinds of love. She falls in love with the apartment the first time she visits it with Lev and decides to live there. Her defense of the apartment when Sophie calls it “very aware of itself” captures the admiration she has for it. She also says that her current living situation is like a sitcom- “My two husbands.” Their bond is established in a scene where both Benji and Lev jump in bed with Frances to wake her up. Once again this love is what the Greeks would call philia. Interestingly though Frances was delighted to know that the boys smoke inside, something Sophie never let her do, throughout her stay at the apartment, there are no scenes of her smoking inside. This captures that in spite of her newfound freedom, some part of her is still clinging on to her past habits. Or perhaps maybe freedom is not as enticing as it seems from a distance.
Frances’s trip home to Sacramento explores a different kind of love. The love that resides in the familiarity of home, in childhood stories told over and over again and in old Christmas lights. This love is storge or the love between family members, between parents and children.
Rejection from her dance company’s Christmas show, her falling out with Sophie and her boyfriend Patch- of whom Frances does not approve of, and her not-quite-right friendship with Rachel, and the revelation that Sophie is moving to Japan all build up to the her eventual breakdown in the iconic scene where she delivers what is perhaps the most heart wrenching monologue about how unintentional eye contact with someone who is your person in a busy party is all that she wants from life, from love. Frances’s trip to Paris alone is captured in beautiful shots of her exploring the city alone, however it is never quite romanticized. Instead Baumbach presents the raw uncertainty of solo trips. Paris as a city is also never romanticized with beautiful establishing shots, the focus remains on Frances and her experience of the city and not on the city itself. Eventually Frances rekindles her relationship with Sophie on the phone in a tiny Parisian café. This trip mostly explores the area of Philautia or self-love. Her eventual rejection of a day job in the company to remain a dancer is also a gesture of self-love.
Frances goes back to her college as a Resident Attendant and runs into a drunk Sophie who is in the middle of a spat with Patch. Sophie spends the night with Frances in her dorm and tells her about her miscarriage. Sophie reveals that she does not intend on marrying Patch and that she hates Tokyo. She tells Frances that she wants to leave Patch and move back to New York. In the morning Sophie leaves a note and returns to Patch’s grandfather’s funeral and her life with Patch. The next scene is a heartbreaking image of a disheveled, barefoot Frances chasing after Sophie’s car shouting her name over and over again. It is in this moment that Baumbach captures the inherent difference between Frances and Sophie; Sophie was someone who would choose eros over philia. And that did not make her a bad person, she was simply different. The film presents reality without any added layer of judgment. The agency to like or dislike characters lies with the audience.
In the final few scenes of the film the audience witnesses a performance choreographed by Frances. It is revealed that Sophie married Patch. Amidst all the praise, Frances locks eyes with Sophie. And it is precisely as the monologue described, both magic and real, both sad and beautiful, because along with Frances, the audience realizes that this is her person. And though it may or may not be reciprocated, it does not matter because this love seeks no selfish reciprocation, it simply exists. The last dialog of the movie sums up all that Frances Ha is about when Frances declares “That’s Sophie. She is my best friend.” And in the following scenes of eye contact between the two, one finds something almost sad about their smiles. However it is not a bad kind of sadness, it is the warm kind, the kind that you feel when you love too much.
As much as Frances Ha is about identity and the gradual process of becoming a ‘real person’, it could be argued that it is mainly about love. All kinds of love but mostly philia and philautia. Frances Ha is a love story about selfless love and self-love; it is about loving and letting go and how both are often intertwined. To love is to let go. To love is to know that someone is your person without demanding to be theirs. To love is to be happy for their happiness even when it no longer includes you. To love, truly and selflessly, is to let go.