Watch Greta Gerwig run, fall and leap in “Frances Ha.” And she does it all beautifully in the melancholy comedy directed by her real-life boyfriend Noah Baumbach. The stunning black and white film is a sleeper hit of the New York Film Festival, which is in full swing.
Ms. Gerwig plays a flaky aspiring dancer, whose life is upended when her best friend and roommate Sophie (played in perfect pitch by Mickey Sumner) moves out into her dream Tribeca apartment leaving Frances adrift. “We’re like a lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex anymore,” Ms. Gerwig’s character says.
Even if you didn’t know Mr. Bambach and his star were a couple you could surmise it by the way Ms. Gerwig is shot in the film; even when she stumbles or falls, which she does often, she still looks gorgeous, wearing clogs and a bomber jacket no less.
At the premiere Sunday, Mr. Baumbach, who co-wrote the script with Ms. Gerwig, said that he wanted to shoot New York in black and white because it is “cinematic, grand and romantic.” If the look reminds audiences of New Wave movies of Truffaut and Godard that is intentional. “I wasn’t thinking Truffaut specifically,” Mr. Baumbach said at an early press conference, “but I feel like I’m always thinking of Truffaut in some way.” Off all his films, which include “Greenberg,” “The Squid and the Whale,” “Margot and the Wedding,” Mr. Baumbach said “in this movie I feel whatever abstraction I felt in my head it’s the closest I’ve gotten to getting it out of there” and onto the screen.
Mr. Baumbach said in “Frances Ha” he was also going for a lighter tone than in his pervious films. When asked about the genesis of the film, he said simply, “to find something to do again with Greta.” Ms. Gerwig starred in his critically acclaimed film “Greenberg” in 2010. He wanted “Frances Ha,” unlike that film, to “be joyful,” he said. “I wanted her life to be grand in a way.”
Director and star wrote the script “over a period of time during different phases,” Ms. Gerwig said. “I’d write some stuff and Noah would write some stuff and sometimes we’d be in the same place.” The characters she said, “really do present themselves” to you. “All of a sudden this person emerged,” she said. “Writing together it felt like we shared one brain sometimes.
At a talk Monday that was part of the New York Film series, Ms. Sumner (who is the daughter of Sting and Trudie Styler, next appears as Patty Smith in the film “CBGB”), said she did a cold audition for the role of Sophie and that there was no script. The two actresses who play close friends in the film only met once previously. “There were lots of amazing actresses who came in and read for the audition,” Ms. Gerwig said, “but Mickey had something that was so special. She didn’t play at being close or being tender because she was, and there’s sort of an intimacy in not being demonstrative about your affection all the time, and Mickey had this quality that made me feel that she was close to Frances and she wasn’t pretending to be.”
The black and white cinematography of the film, Ms. Gerwig said, reminded her of the strip of photos that come out of photo booths. “Me and my friends would go to the State Fair in the summer and take those pictures and there was something instantly sad about them even while they were happening,” she said. “They felt like something that was both nostalgic and of the moment. I remember getting them out and looking at them and already feeling like I’m going to be old one day looking at these and I think that that was the feeling they were going for."
At the premiere, Mr. Baumbach pointed out that the ensemble of actors in “Frances Ha” is “a great snapshot of New York actors in this time.” The cast includes Grace Gummer (Meryl Streep’s daughter), Josh Hamilton (starring in “Dead Accounts” on Broadway) and Adam Driver, who plays Hannah’s boyfriend in “Girls,” a production with obvious comparisons to “Frances Ha.”
Ms. Gerwig inhabits the character of Frances so completely it’s natural to wonder how much of the script is autobiographical.
At the free talk on Monday, in the lobby we ran into the petite woman who plays Ms. Gerwig’s mother in “Frances Ha” and complimented her on her performance. We asked about her next project. “Oh I’m not an actress,” she said. “I’m really Greta’s mother.” And as for the scene where Frances goes to Sacramento to visit her parents, her mother said, “We live in Sacramento.” Then Greta’s mother walked into the auditorium with her husband, who also appears in the film as Ms. Gerwig’s father.
At the premiere when Ms. Gerwig was asked how much she identified with her character, she said, “Frances isn’t me but Frances has always lived inside of me as a character.”