Frances Ha: Noah Baumbach Collaborates with Actress Greta Gerwig to Good Effect

At 43, Noah Baumbach still makes movies as if he were at the beginning his directorial career, resulting in films that are intimately personal, original, and idiosyncratic.

Though they are not art works in the European sense of this term, Baumbach’s films have extremely limited commercial appeal, especially in today’s cruel and competitive market place.

“Frances Ha” played in the fall film festivals of 2012–I caught a press screening at the estimable New York Film Festival, last October.   The film will be released theatrically on May 17, 2013.

Baumbach began his career with verbose comedies that were derivative, pale imitations of Woody Allen, such as “Kicking and Screaming” and “Mr. Jealousy.” But then, in 2005, he made a huge leap forward with the semi-autobiographical “The Squid and the Whale,” his wonderfully acted, most fully realized feature to date. Over the years, that picture, which world-premiered at the Sundance Film Fest, has developed a cult following.

It is clear by now that Baumbach, a more gifted writer than director, is still searching for the right vehicles to express his considerable talents. “Frances Ha” is a step in the right direction, coming after “Margot at the Wedding,” a disappointing film that wasted (or at least underutilized) the talents of two good actresses, Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh (also his wife at the time), and after “Greenberg,” a Ben Stiller character study that some critics (not me) liked.

Baumbach’s new muse is the very attractive and appealing actress, Greta Gerwig, rumored to be the director’s girlfriend. Gerwig played the female lead in “Greenberg,” holding her own against Ben Stiller. She is still bet known for appearances in several mumblecore indie movies (most notably “Baghead,” but also “Hanna Takes the Stairs“).

In the serio-comedy “Frances Ha,” Gerwig is well cast as an intelligent but insecure, unstable woman, in search of identity. “I’m not a real person, yet” she says early on, and she means that. Though she is in her late twenties, she lacks steady income, solid job, and satisfying (or any) personal or romantic life–in short, her life is not defined by mature existence.

As a screen character, Frances is constructed in the mold of Woody Allen’s nervous and insecure heroines, played by the Dianes in his life (first Diane Keato, then Dianne Wiest).

The movie, which is very short (only 80 minutes) and in black-and-white, is modest in ambition and execution. But it has a rich subtext, and lingers in memory after the viewing experience.

In the past, Baumbach has acknowledged the influence of Louis Malle (specifically hhis 1971 masterpiece, “Murmur of the Heart”) on his work. In terms of stylistic devices, “Frances Ha” pays tribute to other Gallic directors of the New Wave.

The dialogue, which is occasionally sharp, observant, and witty, is fluent and feels like a product of improvisation, or semi-improvisation.

Gerwig gives a charming, dominant performance that elevates the film way above its other aspects; in fact, it’s hard to imagine the film without her. When Gerwig tells her friend, “You judge people who aren’t as moderate as you,” she might be expressing the authorial voice of her director.

Sadly, the commercial potential for films such as “Frances Ha” is very limited, though it should do better in ancillary markets. At a certain point, Baumbach would have to reconsider the direction he is going as an artist–if his work is to have any impact–or to be seen.

Right now, Baumbach is one of the few uncompromising directors left (alongside with Todd Solondz, Todd Haynes, and a few others). Baumbach’s work, which depends on critics and festivals support, gives a good name to American indpendent cinema.