Thursday, November 21, 2013

How Frances Ha and Blue Jasmine are photo-negatives of each other

Even if Noah Baumbach hadn't stated his admiration for Woody Allen, critics probably still would've drawn comparisons to Allen's Manhattan when Frances Ha was released earlier this year.  After all, they're both black & white films about upper-crust, literate New Yorkers who find themselves as restless as the city they inhabit.  And while those comparisons are the most prominent, the Woody Allen film that I couldn't get out of my head when I watched Frances Ha last weekend was his latest, Blue Jasmine.  It may not be immediately apparent how the story of a listless 27-year-old dancer is similar to the story of a woman in her mid 40s moving back in with her sister, but the ways in which they handle the same broad ideas differently is worth digging into.  They're two of my favorite films of 2013, currently sitting side-by-side at #3 and #4 on my list, and they end up revealing themselves to be photo negatives of one another.

The most obvious, literal way to draw this delineation is through their respective uses of color.  They say that many people have a tough time dealing with the early stages of adulthood and the dulling of emotions that result from no longer being a slave to the hormonal ups-and-downs of adolescence.  If that's the case, then the black & white cinematography in Frances Ha is a fitting choice, given its lead character's (Greta Gerwig) floundering throughout the film.  In a way, she's stuck trying to live her life in a younger state -- still rooming with her best friend from college, trapped in her own solipsism, and approaching life with a general insouciance -- as if true adulthood isn't on the menu.  Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), the lead character in Blue Jasmine, is well into adulthood, but is only forced to truly experience it where we're introduced to her in the film.  Cushioned by the life of luxury provided by her husband's (Alec Baldwin) wealth for most of her life, she basically has no real responsibilities to deal with, until his imprisonment and eventual death leaves her penniless and crawling back to live with her semi-estranged adopted sister.  Jasmine wishes to return to the fantasy life that wealth granted her, but she's trapped in the bitter truth of her situation.  Woody Allen and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe shoot San Francisco with lush, vibrant colors, which only emphasizes the harshness of the reality that Jasmine finds herself in.  As much as her delusions and reminisces of the past try to layer over it, her situation comes bleeding in at every crack.  In a film that's all about keeping up veneers, the vivid colors are the glossy surface covering up a much darker soul.

There are a number of small similarities that link the two films, including the way they both explore a world of upper class and privilege.  Although we see Frances living from paycheck to paycheck, it's clear from the swank apartments that she crashes at, she still lives in an environment where there's some level of comfort.  There's even a scene where a character tells her, "Calling yourself poor is an insult to actual poor people."  Class and privilege come to the forefront even more in Blue Jasmine.  Jasmine inherits a life of luxury by marrying a rich man, and becomes so accustomed to it that she's left without any skills to help her pull herself together once that opulence escapes her.  Woody Allen may paint her less sophisticated sister (Sally Hawkins) and her boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale) in broad, salt-of-the-earth strokes, but their relative contentment with their lives stands in direct contrast with Jasmine's desperate attempts to reclaim her status.  While both films deal with complex female relationships (friendship in Frances Ha, sisterhood in Blue Jasmine), they remain locked in on their unmoored protagonists.  There's a gap between the way Frances and Jasmine perceive their lives and the reality of it, but the latter's delusions are filtered through a much darker lens.   In a different light, you could easily see Frances growing up to be Jasmine down the road.

But this is where the two films really deviate and end up representing opposite poles of the character study narrative.  Blue Jasmine's trajectory is straight downward; it's clear from very early into the film that things won't end well for its titular character.  We see her slowly unravel, becoming less able to mask her mental illness, until her lies and transgressions catch up with her, leaving her with no job and no place to stay.  Mirroring the opening scene of the film, the final moments show Jasmine nattering on to another complete stranger, lost in her own hazy-eyed recollections.  She's wearing the same outfit -- this time it's a little less tidy, her face a little more weathered -- but now the stranger won't even pretend to listen to this stark raving madwoman.  It's a brutally grim ending, leaving us with Jasmine on the bench alone, jazz music playing only in her head, but it's one of my favorites of the year.

The ending of Frances Ha is also quite remarkable, but for completely different reasons.  Unlike Blue Jasmine, its trajectory is one that's harder to pin down, filled with all kinds of curlicues that keep the narrative interesting.  For a long time, it seems as if things aren't going to end well for Frances.  We see her quit dancing, alienate her friends, and resort back to working as an RA at her old university (the film's most obvious, but wrenching symbolism).  Yet at the end, she pulls it together and puts on a dance show that she choreographed, with all of her friends in attendance.  It's a beautiful scene -- the dancers repeatedly converging to embrace before moving apart, interspersed with shots of Frances's friends, these twenty-somethings whose lives bump up against each other and overlap like tectonic plates.  After seeing Jasmine attempting to regain her lavish lifestyle and crumbling when she can't in Blue Jasmine, Frances finding peace in a life less "important" than she initially hoped for becomes doubly moving.

Blue Jasmine's ending is one of the most depressing of the year and Frances Ha's is one of the most uplifting, but they both work because they come from a place that's honest to the stories that they have to tell.  The two protagonists share many similarities (and are brought to the screen by two of the best performances of the year), and their respective films show how the results of those character traits can change depending on what life stage you're in.  Jasmine is stuck in a dire position, due to both unfortunate circumstances and choices of her own making, and the film concludes that she's at a point beyond repair.  Perhaps, on the other hand, Frances Ha is a wonderful statement about being in your 20s, and how it's not too late to decide who you want to be.

No comments:

Post a Comment