Two New Stories With A New-Wave Vibe
Lately I've been re-watching vintage Truffaut movies, and I've been struck by the resurgent influence on American independent films of the French New Wave of the late '50s and '60s.
The Truffaut borrowings are fairly explicit in Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha, while Richard Linklater's Before Midnight takes its cues from Eric Rohmer's gentle but expansive talkfests. That's not a criticism: With mainstream movies seeming ever more machine-tooled nowadays, the impulse to reach back to an age of free-form filmmaking feels especially liberating.
Not that Frances Ha isn't also annoying. It's an ode to Baumbach's girlfriend Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the picture and plays Frances, a would-be dancer not terribly light on her feet — she's adorably galumphy. She's also childlike, almost pre-sexual, holding fast to her roommate and best friend, Sophie, played by Mickey Sumner. They hold hands, sometimes sleep in the same bed.
The movie centers on how grown-up life wallops Frances. She loses the dancing gig that pays her rent. Sophie pulls away. The camera holds on Frances' face as she takes each blow. But she galumphs on.
Critics have acclaimed the film as Baumbach's most generous after a series of hate letters to humankind — Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg. But the old Baumbach condescension to his characters is there, not least in the way sundry New York snobs fail to recognize Frances' magic.
He's very attached to the notion that for a scene to be dramatic, it has to build to a humiliation. The New Wave borrowings are hit-and-miss. The black-and-white cinematography is radiant, and I loved one particular traveling shot of Frances bounding and twirling along a sidewalk. But Baumbach appropriates one of my favorite scores — Georges Delerue's wistful waltz from King of Hearts -- and periodically cranks it up for quick shots of enchantment.
He does pull off a wonderful trick in combining — seamlessly — a French New Wave exuberance with the homegrown American genre known as mumblecore, in which youngish characters grope to express something definite in a world of indecision. The scenes with Frances and Sophie are messy, wavering in ways I've never seen; almost as fine are scenes in which Frances lolls around an apartment she comes to share with two self-indulgent but funny rich boys. When Baumbach's touch is glancing — when he cuts before the humiliation — the movie zings.
Before Midnight is a more daring feat. It's Linklater's third film with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, whose characters Jesse and Celine met on a train in 1995's Before Sunrise and got reacquainted under tense circumstances nine years later in Before Sunset.
This is a very different movie. Jesse and Celine have been together for nearly a decade — they live in France and have two golden-ringleted little girls — and the magic of discovery has worn off. Jesse is a successful novelist and doesn't seem fully present: He escapes into his career and lets Celine tend to the girls. But Celine isn't one to hide her disappointment, or her desire to measure their old life against their new.
Hawke and Delpy worked with Linklater on the script, and when you watch these exchanges — which zig and zag, in lengthy single takes — you almost believe they're thinking up the lines as they go along. The film is set on a Greek island, where they're on holiday, and like Eric Rohmer, Linklater uses the landscape, here cliffs and crags and ancient buildings, to underscore Celine's longing for permanence and Jesse's for flight. He wants to move to Chicago to be closer to the son from his previous marriage. Celine, who feels increasingly erased, isn't so sure.
Movies are full of people meeting and marrying. They're full of tortured breakups. The middle ground of Before Midnight is less explored. At times the film's down-to-earthiness, its severe naturalism, seems inadequate for capturing the immensity of the emotions. But the characters' thinking and groping and sometimes cutting each other dead in real time offers a different kind of amazement. Where else do single shots of two people talking feel this full?
Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.