NYFF: Brian DePalma’s Passion & Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha


Here’s Nick Pinkerton on two highly anticipated films from NYFF’s main slate: Brian De Palma’s Passion and Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha:

Brian De Palma and Noah Baumbach have become thick as thieves–odd when one considers that the two filmmakers’ bodies of work seem, on the surface, to have positively nothing to do with each another, but then there it is. Last spring at BAMcinematek, Baumbach moderated a program of De Palma’s thrillers, of which Passion is the latest example.

On Sunday, October 7th, they will again share a stage, this time at the Walter Reade Theater for one of the HBO Directors Dialogues, hopefully to expand on the one identifiable theme of their NYFF entries: Filming women.

Directed by Brian De Palma
Screens Saturday, October 6th at 9 p.m.

De Palma nudged into a seat just in time to catch Baumbach’s post- Frances Ha press conference, but after Passion ‘s screening last week he missed his own, delayed in a cab (De Palma’s protagonists, of course, always arrive just a moment too late to play hero.) The great man’s NYFF woes had only begun, however–in a festival first, Saturday’s prime-time screening of Passion was canceled on account of a terminal DCP glitch, after a screening of Antonio Méndez Esparza’s dully-earnest Here and There had suffered technical difficulties earlier in the day.

It’s an ironic fate for old-schooler De Palma, who recently told an interviewer “If you have beautiful locations and beautiful women and you want to light them correctly, you shoot on film.” The director’s latest has both, and much else besides. What is in the numinous pockets of BDP’s trademark safari jacket, a friend recently mused? Why, split-screens and split diopter lenses, stiletto heels and kitchen knives, childhood traumas and identical twins, ineffectual men and black widow women–just a few of his favorite things, of which Passion is comprised.

Quite freely based on 2010’s Love Crime , the final film by the late Alain Corneau, whose great ’70s works ( Série noire , Police Python 357 ) had something of the same complex, multi-layered relationship to genre that De Palma’s contemporary output did, Passion concerns corporate skullduggery at the Berlin office of advertising agency Koch Image between a trio of women jockeying for position on the chain-of-command: Alpha bitch Christine (Rachel McAdams), her self-effacing second-in-command, Isabelle (Noomi Rapace), and Dani (Karoline Herfurth), Isabelle’s lieutenant, who watches with undisguised Sapphic longing as her boss flirts with Paul Anderson’s craggy, self-loathing white-collar gigolo.

War is declared when Christine takes credit for Isabelle and Dani’s “Ass cam” blue jeans campaign, which records the appreciative looks of passers-bys from a back pocket perspective–the campaign’s corporate co-opting of homemade aesthetics sets the stage for a narrative that’s all about deceptive surfaces, as well as being the perfect gag for a film about watching your back. The premise comes from an actual Levi’s campaign, and it’s the sort of Candid Camera scopophilia that has always been peekaboo De Palma’s stock-in-trade, updated in Passion to a 21st century world whose inhabitants live in public in transparent corporate-park glass boxes, where personalities are infinitely fractured and refracted through ubiquitous image capture (smartphone sex tapes, security cameras, Skype conference), the weapons of choice in this three-way dual.

The color-coded casting–McAdams is blonde, Rapace brunette, Herfurth a redhead–has nothing to do with the director’s positioning the women as symbolic placeholders representing various aspects of femininity. They’re not merely passive subjects. De Palma respects his heroines as equal participants in his masquerade, colleagues in the field of image-making–McAdams at one point appears with the “Image” of a Koch Image sign iconographically situated behind her–working towards hidden objectives from under cover of their archetypal roles, less clearly-delineated personalities than stand-in avatars representing themselves in a real-world that is ever more dissonantly virtual, their every interaction offering multivalent readings.

McAdams, for example, does a fine (faux-?) heart-to-heart with Rapace, crying (crocodile?) tears over the girlhood death of a twin sister, a scene whose almost parodic pathos confounds comfortable response–as does Passion . Like most De Palma, it works perfectly well as slinky “fun trash”–all the while throwing off infinitely more ideas per minute than works which present themselves to the public under the cumbersome mantle of art. (Nick Pinkerton)

Frances Ha
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Screens Thursday, July 4th at 9 p.m.

Noah Baumbach’s ’90s films– Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy –feature some very sharp and funny writing about the insecurities inherent to modern bachelorhood… and some very poorly-written women, depicted as checklists of adorable quirks: Olivia d’Abo fooling around with her retainer in Kicking , Annabella Sciorra whimsically traipsing around the Brooklyn Museum in Jealousy .

After a host of more complex ladies in recent work, Baumbach has returned to the post-collegiate milieu of his debut behind a female protagonist–and it looks grimly precious at first, as Frances (Greta Gerwig) is introduced doing a soft-shoe while fake-busking. To borrow from young Scott Fitzgerald at his most self-parodic, Frances is “a faded but still lovely woman of 27.” A dancer employed in an apprenticeship capacity by a New York City company, Frances teaches children’s classes–like Miranda July in The Future !–and lives an intermediate existence in life’s waiting room. “I’m not a real person yet,” she’ll inform a date shortly after breaking up with a long-term boyfriend so she can keep her own apartment with Sophie, her best friend since college–who promptly ditches Frances for an opportunity to move downtown and upmarket.

Sophie is played by Mickey Sumner, Sting’s daughter–and this hint of nepotism, as well as the focus on female friendship, strengthens the connection to Lena Dunham’s Girls (Adam Driver, Dunham’s TV fuckbuddy, also shows up as one of Frances’ roommates.) Frances repeatedly describes Sophie and herself as “the same person”–Identical twins? A hidden thematic link between De Palma and Baumbach?–but a hint of desperation creeps into this chorus as it becomes increasingly obvious that Sophie is endeavoring to become a different person, as Frances clings to the liminal state of becoming to forestall having to decide on a final identity (“You seem a lot older, but less grown up,” a friend of Sophie’s tells Frances.)

Here the flimsy whimsy of the opening gives way to a pitch-perfect study in the solipsism of prideful self-pity. In her tenuous state, the dropping away of Frances’ few stanchions of reliability are enough to start her into one of those gently floating free-falls available to middle-class kids with the parachute of a support system. A very vagabondish film about stasis, Frances tracks its heroine between NYC apartments, each new address noted with an intertitle, as she hides out from responsibility–she’s always the leasee, never the lessor–then on a Christmas holiday vacation to California, an absurdly abbreviated trip to Paris (the rough draft for this bit is Baumbach’s 2000 short “Conrad and Butler Take a Vacation,” included on the Kicking and Screaming DVD), and a retreat to her old upstate college haunt which only serves as proof that you can’t re-enroll again.

Baumbach’s latest was co-written with 29-year old star Gerwig, who appeared in his 2010’s Greenberg . Gerwig’s sloped tallness and falling-forward trot don’t inspire great hope for Frances’ career as a dancer, but Gerwig rides the movie’s comic tempo nicely with her clumpy elocution (editor Jennifer Lame deserves maximum credit), and working with Whit Stillman on Damsels with Distress seems to have calmed the actress’ over-anxious naturalism. Like Frances, Gerwig hails from Sacramento. Her own parents appear as Frances’ parents; and she is presumably drawing material from a brief parenthesis of straightened circumstances before being anointed the “It” girl of her generation, with consequent NY Times profiles and work in the Arthur remake.

Unlike that horror, Frances Ha is steeped in the economic realities of life-by-budget in NYC (there’s a good bit with ATM fees) and the exigencies of real-estate, with Frances and Sophie cracking wise at the expense of another’s interior décor (“This apartment is very aware of itself.”) The film is structured as a chain of blackout sketches, quick-in quick-out scenes distilling social situations to their essence in a non-gag “Overheard in New York” punchline, these interpolated with longer, confessional moments. Shot in digital black-and-white by Sam Levy, the set-ups flip by like sparse comic panels–and the narrative covers the same parting ways of a platonic female couple captured so well in Terry Zwigoff/ Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World.

The film’s final act gathers together the various personalities whose paths Frances has crossed, petitioning the audience’s indulgence in forgiving everyone their follies–a far more generous tack than the shame-based, exhibitionistic farce recently preferred by Baumbach (and Dunham).

While De Palma’s black comedy re-phrases Godard’s “To live in society today is like living in one enormous comic-strip” to a contemporary “To live in society today is like living in a digital hall-of-mirrors”, Frances Ha is blown along by the French New Wave’s gentler spirits. Baumbach described Frances Ha as a “pop song” at his press conference, and the soundtrack is a buoyant mesh of George Delarue compositions, ’80s Bowie, and contributions from Britta Phillips and Dean Wareham. It was Wareham’s old band, Galaxie 500, who cadged the epochal title of an Ornette Coleman LP for their 1990 This is Our Music –and this announcement of proprietary pride in the humble property of one’s life as suitable materials for art might be a subtitle for Baumbach and Gerwig’s very parochial, very personal, very accessible film: This is Our Movie. (Nick Pinkerton)

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