July 19, 2013 6:41 pm

Bittersweet to feelgood

Director Noah Baumbach talks about treading the line between upbeat and melancholy
Noah Baumbach on the High Line in New York this year©Getty

Noah Baumbach on the High Line in New York this year

Here are some of the most rightly feared words in the English language: there is a new feelgood movie coming out this week. A new American feelgood movie, it will be the kind of movie that tries so hard to make you feel good, with its abrupt plot resolutions, character U-turns and moronic optimism, that you come out of the cinema feeling suicidal.

So when I meet Noah Baumbach on his recent trip to London, I have to suppress the urge to hug him. Baumbach’s new movie is nothing like those passion-killers. Frances Ha, which is about to be released in the UK, is a light-touched, generously spirited tribute to the resilience of the young human spirit. It really does make you feel good. I came out of it with a large smile on my face, and I tell him so.

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Baumbach, 43, has a slightly stern and quiet demeanour, and does not seem like a voracious hugger. But he has the satisfied air of having hit a home run, and knowing it. Has there been a more likeable film to come out of the US over the past decade? “Thank you,” he says politely.

The film, loosely wound around the travails of a 27-year-old woman trying to find her way in New York, has been casually compared with Woody Allen’s finest work of the 1970s. Shot in elegant monochrome, festooned with snappy-smart dialogue, its characters could be the children of the Manhattan generation: more confident about sex and drugs than their forebears to be sure but a lot less certain of ever holding down a job.

At the centre of all the loopiness is Frances, played with luminous charm by Greta Gerwig, a relative newcomer whose big-boned beauty and deft comedic talent are surely about to take her to another level of film stardom. Gerwig co-wrote the movie with Baumbach, during which time they became romantically involved. There is powerful chemistry between them – and an undeniably love-letter feel to the film – which Baumbach acknowledges. “There was so much openness and good faith in the way she approached the role, I wanted to make sure that I would honour and reward that,” he says.

Greta Gerwig in ‘Frances Ha’

Greta Gerwig in ‘Frances Ha’

Gerwig’s performance is precariously balanced. Frances is on the klutzy side of ingenuous, finding it hard to put together the three essentials of modern urban living: job, relationship, apartment. But Frances rises above it all, her every gauche defeat failing to discourage her.

Her modest victories by the film’s conclusion are in many ways heroic, says Baumbach. “She can finally accept the romance of practicality,” he says. “Taking a desk job, finding your own place – these are relatively unromantic things. But they should be celebrated.”

The film’s freewheeling spirit reminded me much more of early François Truffaut than Woody Allen, I say. Baumbach even invites the comparison by using the lovely music of Georges Delerue, the New Wave’s house composer. “I wasn’t thinking I wanted to do a Truffaut thing but one of the things I love about those films is their energy and spirit. The spirit of the film-making is embedded in the spirit of the narrative, and vice versa.

“I guess the black and white thing, and the young woman in the city theme have those New Wave connotations. But I didn’t want it to feel like a homage in any literal way. I hesitated about using the music. But in the end I felt it could be evocative without it feeling too much.”

So whatever happened to those great, literate, charming, hopeful movies of that golden age? “It’s a particular sensibility, and for whatever reason, fewer people are driven to do them,” he replies. “But the thing about Truffaut, and Frances in its own way, is that they may leave a smile on your face but there is melancholy there too. What I get from the best Truffaut movies is that I feel great but at the same time acknowledge a kind of sadness about life.”

Here is another surprising thing about the dizzy, upbeat rhythms of Frances Ha: for a while, it looked like the melancholy side had irretrievably seized hold of Baumbach’s own sensibility. After the success of his breakthrough film, 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, a bittersweet, semi-autobiographical account of his parents’ divorce, he made Margot at the Wedding (2007) and Greenberg (2010), both accomplished comedy dramas that largely explored the selfishness of the human spirit rather than celebrated its generosity.

Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels in ‘The Squid and the Whale’ (2005)©Kobal

Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels in ‘The Squid and the Whale’ (2005)

“I’m interested in things that are funny, and not, at the same time,” says Baumbach. “I come at all these movies with a comic idea in my head. But the emphasis may change in the way they end up. When I first saw a screening of The Squid, I was surprised there wasn’t more laughter. But that was OK. It meant the audience was invested. A lot of people said to me, ‘I hope it’s OK that I laughed,’ which was a funny thing to say.”

Frances Ha could also have turned a little bleaker, he says. “Greta was always going to play it in this comic, joyful way. But it is the story of a 27-year-old girl in the city, and that is about struggle. In your own head, that can be agony. It can be a very hard time for people, it was for me. There is a much more serious version of this movie.”

It is almost as if Baumbach wanted to create an antidote to the sour Greenberg, which featured Ben Stiller as a bitter, middle-aged man who can’t come to terms with the failure to realise his youthful dreams. “He never took those decisions that Frances does,” says Baumbach. “He has had to build barrier after barrier to live with this false sense of himself. His pipes haven’t been cleaned out for a long time.” Baumbach says he still finds the film amusing “but there is a much more troubling aspect to it”.

He should show the two films in a double bill for 35-year-olds, who would be equidistant between the middle-aged disillusionment and youthful hope depicted in them, I say. “Right. I definitely don’t want to be that. But maybe I should have done that.” The beauty of these minor-key works is that they are unafraid of treading the delicate boundary between happy and sad. It’s often a matter of timing. As one of Frances’s characters says: “Sometimes it is good to do what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it.”

So what is Baumbach supposed to do now? More collaborations, he says, with Gerwig of course, and also with Stiller. A promising project to make a television adaptation of Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections for HBO surprisingly floundered when the pilot wasn’t picked up. “It was too wildly ambitious to execute for TV,” he says.

It’s a shame, I say. If there is any golden age of the narrative arts around today, it surely applies to television. Baumbach bridles slightly. “It is clearly a great time for TV, the shows are more complex and nuanced than ever. But the thing you get from a great television show is that you want to watch the next one. What you get over the space of two or three hours in a movie theatre is a whole other thing. And it’s not OK to say that the movies stink now, just because we have great TV. We have to have both.”

Spoken like a true cineaste. Truffaut would have been proud.

‘Frances Ha’ is released in UK cinemas on July 26

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