I tend to hate reviews that arbitrarily pit films against each other, setting one up as a cudgel to thrash the other with. It's the obnoxious conceit that drives Armond White's annual "better-than" lists, the idea that something can only be considered good while in relief against something dismal.
That said, I've been trying to figure out why I liked Noah Baumbach's FRANCES HA so much more than Lena Dunham's TINY FURNITURE, both Criterion releases (the former having been released yesterday in a Blu/DVD dual format package).
Both films have a superficially identical recipe: a twenty-something white woman experiencing post-college paralysis, adrift in Manhattan (and, of course, Brooklyn; the nerve center for this sort of thing), sponging off of others while vaguely aiming for an unambitious career in the arts, surrounded by a coterie of privileged, like-minded, polyamorous friends and -- ultimately -- just (heavy sigh) soooo unsure of what to do with themselves.
As the hyperlink above will tell you, I'm on the record as liking FURNITURE well enough (though I'm thinking that extra half-star was awful generous). But I liked FRANCES HA. A lot. And where I find Dunham to be a particularly noxious personality (on- and off-screen), I've always been charmed by Greta Gerwig, the star and co-writer of FRANCES HA. But I still began by gritting my teeth through the opening moments of the film, expecting another 80-minute trip through the insufferable quirks of a free-spirited freeloader.
Those opening moments establish Gerwig's Frances as a barely functioning woman-child. She lives with her best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner) in a small apartment in New York. Despite the close quarters, Frances still can't get enough of Sophie, opting most nights to share her bed (in a totally non-sexual, slumber party way). Her attachment to Sophie leads to her refusal to move in with her boyfriend, resulting in their breakup.
The film zips rather quickly from vignette to vignette. Sophie soon liberates herself from Frances and Frances spends the majority of the film treading water, pining for her best friend and refusing to make a leap into... well, anything resembling an adult life. The film is not necessarily about unhealthy relational attachments, although that's certainly a part of it.
The wonderful thing about FRANCES HA -- and I believe this is where it parts ways with TINY FURNITURE and the rest of Dunham's work -- is its vulnerability. Despite its setting, its characters, its soundtrack, there's no affectation at its center. When Frances tells a friend, proudly, that she and her current roommates live their lives "like a sitcom", I don't think we're supposed to smirk and think how cool that must be. There's an undercurrent of sad desperation to it. This isn't quirk for quirk's sake. Most of the credit goes to Gerwig's performance (and you have to really love Gerwig to even begin to appreciate this film; if she doesn't do it for you, steer clear). Frances is definitely a stock character for her but I don't see her improving on the whole wayward twenty-something beyond this point.
Baumbach, too, is at his peak here. Like his colleague and sometime collaborator Wes Anderson, Baumbach is often accused of making the same quirky, affected film over and over. Also like Anderson, I think most detractors do not recognize (or just do not care) that there's a real tenderness at the center of Baumbach's work. With FRANCES HA, he's taken a step backwards from the snarky cynicism of MARGOT AT THE WEDDING and GREENBERG. FRANCES HA is almost a maturation of Baumbach's other post-college drama, 1995's KICKING AND SCREAMING. That film was stuffed with self-aware pop culture references and rather absurd (and, yes, sitcom-ish) characters and plot structure (it hasn't aged well). With Frances, Baumbach and Gerwig have built someone who -- whether she wants to or not -- inhabits some version of the real world and must come to terms with it.
Speaking of comedy that doesn't date well, early in the summer, I rewatched Mike Leigh's 1990 LIFE IS SWEET (again, a Criterion release; and, no, I don't work for them; however, if anybody from that outfit is reading this and wants to hire me as a colorist/online editor...). The film had been my gateway into Leigh, someone I regarded as a favorite for a long time (and someone whose films I still eagerly anticipate). If you'd asked me to name my favorite Leigh film, it would have been a toss-up between LIFE IS SWEET and SECRETS & LIES. In both cases, I would have cited Timothy Spall's performance as a major factor in my decision.
Rewatching the film ten years after I'd first seen it (and over twenty since it arrived just in time for the early '90s independent film explosion), however, I found the film -- and Spall's nervously cool man-child in particular -- quite grating. What might have seemed refreshingly odd in 1990 felt like it had been already wrung out via quirky comedies with packaged modern rock soundtracks and their sitcom cousins.
LIFE IS SWEET wasn't a disaster, per se. It had all of Leigh's usual ingredients -- his obsession with what makes regular folks happy, working class angst, intentionally off-putting characters (I'd watched CAREER GIRLS a few weeks before which pulled off the "endearingly annoying" thing with a lot more aplomb). It just bears the stains of a certain type of late ‘80s/early ’90s indie film that I'm a bit too tired to define further right now. I loathe faulting something for being dated but there is a point where stylistic choices made, at the time, for their brazen flaunting of convention look a little silly in retrospect.
However, Jane Horrocks plays a rebellious daughter with the need to punctuate every thought with a sneering, clichéd insult ("fascist pig", etc.). This aspect of the character wears thin fast but Horrocks manages to pull a strange, sad poignance out of the character, building to a big scene between her and her mother (played by Alison Steadman). Despite my memory of LIFE IS SWEET as a funny film, this scene (about 40 minutes in) was the one lodged in my brain. It'd be a shame to spoil it but I will say that, whatever its faults, its worth sitting through LIFE IS SWEET's overripe comedy to get to its rather timeless moment of pathos. I can't help but wonder if I won't be saying the same thing about FRANCES HA twenty years from now.