Noah Baumbach is an expert in disappointment. One of cinema’s most incisive voices on the subject of diminishing expectations, almost all of the writer-director’s wayward protagonists struggle with their station in life. From Jeff Daniels’ frustrated writer in The Squid and The Whale to Ben Stiller’s bitter musician in Greenberg, his characters make excuses for why they haven’t achieved what they wanted to, expressing their discontent through deluded self-regard or sourness.
“It’s probably true everywhere, but success feels like such a particularly American marker,” Noah explains. “I’ve always been fascinated by how individuals define it for themselves. I think people write stories in their head that become impossible to live up to.”
Despite his own successes over the last decade—as well as his own films, Noah co-wrote two of Wes Anderson’s best pictures—his continued interest in dissatisfied characters can be partly traced back to what he calls his first career. Rejected from film school, Noah decided to go ahead and make a film anyway, writing and directing the comedy drama Kicking and Screaming. Its critical success established him as part of the great 1990s wave of American independent filmmakers, but after the underwhelming response to his sophomore effort Mr. Jealousy, the phone very suddenly stopped ringing.
The film that Noah spent the better part of a decade trying to get made—the semi-autobiographical bildungsroman The Squid and The Whale—reignited his career and found him nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, but he continued to be drawn to characters unable to make peace with their ambitions. Noah’s earlier struggles only added to the empathy he has for his characters’ circumstances. “When I wrote Greenberg, I was thinking about what would have happened if I hadn’t made The Squid and The Whale, if I had turned inward and become more frustrated, more rigid, less willing to live life as it was as opposed to how I wanted it to be. That film was the worst-case scenario of my life.”
At first glance, Noah’s latest offering appears to be little different. Starring co-writer Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha is about a 27-year-old dancer struggling to find work in New York, making constant changes to her life and yet never seeming to make any progress. Bright, relatively privileged and unable to find a career footing, Frances’ plight is common to an entire generation, but her chronic inability to be honest with herself will be recognisable to anyone familiar with Noah’s work.
The film garners comic mileage out of Frances’ many wince-inducing tribulations, from having to dash out of a date to withdraw money from a cash machine, to enduring a mortifying dinner party with people far more settled than she is. Despite Noah’s customary clear-eyed depiction of the character, however, something is different: even as her situation becomes increasingly dire, there’s an admiration for Frances’ tenacity and spirit that soaks into every scene. The film plays out like a love letter.
Noah’s real-life relationship with Greta Gerwig is certainly a factor: made in the first flourish of their time together, Frances Ha is defined by an indefatigable optimism that is the mark of early romance, and for all the character’s foibles, she’s imbued with a grace that is unmistakably Greta’s. More than that, though, the film shows how Frances’ cheerful resolve leads her to a place where she can find contentment in her changing circumstances, even if they’re different from what she hoped for.
The realisation is its own sort of triumph: unencumbered by the resentments that blight Noah’s other characters, Frances is ultimately free to accept and enjoy her life rather than worrying about what she has yet to accomplish. “I was very clear early on that I wanted to give her a satisfying victory,” he says, “a victory that should feel true to the story and the character and the anthropology of the world, but a victory nonetheless.”
Far from his early work, made when he was the age of his latest title character, Noah is also comfortable with where he is. “The movies I’ve made in this ‘second career’ represent me as the filmmaker I am each time I make them. Whatever security I might feel or not feel as a filmmaker is in line with whatever security I feel as a human being. 43 feels more secure than I was at 27.”
The key to his hard-won self-assurance, Noah feels, was the decade he spent struggling: “Just trying to get a movie funded was impossible, but retrospectively that time was also me figuring myself out a little bit and working out how I wanted to write and make movies.”
The conclusion of Frances Ha finds its protagonist at a similar juncture, one that is hopeful yet inconclusive, right down to its title-explaining final shot. “My other films landed somewhere in the middle, but this time it felt that the right ending and the most satisfying one was actually an ending of incompleteness. It’s about an acceptance of that incompleteness,” Noah says. “At 27 you’re never going to feel complete. But that’s okay: if you did, you’d be insufferable.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Seventeen.