Film Review - Frances Ha
Don’t mind me, I’m just trying to get your attention.
by Julie Futrell
At a time when hysteria has all but disappeared from clinical discourse and Lacan’s question of where all the great hysterics have gone seems particularly timely, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig respond in their 2012 film, Frances Ha, that she is as alive and dissatisfied as ever. Indeed, the film—directed by Baumbach—captures hysteria at its finest, following twenty-something Frances as she trips and stumbles (literally and figuratively) through life in Manhattan in her struggle to ascertain her own desire and place with regard to the Other. Both a coming-of-age account as well as a love story, Frances Ha explores themes of gender, sexuality, identity, castration, and the inevitable conflicts that women face in contemporary culture when navigating the transition to adulthood.
Frances (played by Gerwig) is a quirky, guileless, self-conscious, deliciously self-deprecating want-to-be dancer who is painfully unaware of how her refusal to grow up betrays an underlying discomfort with her feminine sexuality and the concomitant creative function it enables. Frances attempts to locate her identity by fusing with others in an imaginary relation, whether that be via her best friend, Sophie, or new roommate, Benji. Frances’s numerous declarations that she and Sophie are “the same person but with different hair” attests to her desire for a dyadic relationship that lacks nothing. Indeed, Frances goes so far as to describe love between two people as a “secret world that exists in public that no one else knows about.” Frances longs for such an imaginary world and consequently is stuck always playing the role of object for the Other. When Sophie suddenly moves out of their shared apartment, Frances is left unsure of what to do or who to be. The film portrays her desperately attaching to one person after another—both male and female—as she attempts to find her identity through identification. In one poignant scene, Frances impulsively travels to Paris for two short days, and then spends the duration of her time there waiting for a friend who lives in the city to phone. When the friend fails to call, we see Frances immobilized—unable to move or act without an Other.
Intimately tied up with her inability to ascertain her desire is Frances’s rejection of her own sexuality. Frances only has one romantic attachment the entire film, and this quickly ends when the man invites her to move in with him. The rest of the film portrays Frances either in a beaten-up leather jacket or in clothing that largely serves to cover and shield rather than to express. Frances deflects men’s romantic attention (despite being heterosexual) preferring instead to just be “one of the guys,” rather than sexually engaging with them, causing Benji to deem her “undateable.” The question of her femininity is one that, though she remains consciously unaware of it, unconsciously is quite predominant in Frances’s struggles.
The rejection of her femininity, as well as of her own castration, results in Frances’s inability to make a choice for herself and a fixation of her creative capacities. Nowhere is this more evident than when the contract with her dance company is terminated and her mentor encourages Frances to begin choreographing her own work. Frances refuses and instead returns to her old college where she lives in the dorms and works for the summer. We see here a desire to return to an earlier time and an attendant refusal to embrace womanhood. When Frances runs into an estranged and engaged Sophie on the college campus, she is briefly given her night of fantasy: Sophie and Frances lay side-by-side in the dorm room bed reminiscing, and a drunken Sophie tells Frances that she is leaving her fiancé so that she and Frances can once again be close. When Frances awakens to a note from Sophie apologizing for her drunkenness and explaining that she has left to return to her fiancé, Frances runs into the street screaming Sophie’s name.
When we next see Frances, she is professionally and expressively dressed, working with her old mentor and choreographing her own material. We see her in her own apartment—not on someone’s couch or in a dorm. In one of the final scenes of the film, we see the many people of Frances’s life all gathered together to watch one of her choreographed pieces. She has created something, made something that is hers. As she catches Sophie’s gaze from across the room after the show has ended, there is no longer a sense of competition or fusion, but rather, a beautiful acknowledgment of difference and the sexuality that can emerge once that difference has been recognized and accepted. Frances’s move toward creativity implies a move from the imaginary toward the symbolic—a move from identity through fusion toward identity through her symbolic achievements. In a sense, Frances no longer needs to be the phallus because she can now sometimes just have the phallus via her creative work—that is, she can feel powerful through what she creates rather than through over-identification with men or excessive attachment to the desire of the Other.
The last scene of the movie finds Frances sitting at her own desk writing her name on a piece of paper to insert into the display slot on her mailbox. We see her write her name in full, yet when it comes time to fit the paper into the slot on the mailbox, it is too long. Frances carefully folds the paper to a size that will fit and what fits is the name, “Frances Ha.” The moment eloquently captures many of the themes of the film. It first and foremost indicates a claiming of her own name—a naming of herself that is closely connected to her newfound ability to create rather than simply model her identity after others. It furthermore denotes a certain castration that has occurred for Frances. Her last name has been cut short—there is something lacking from it. Yet strangely, the name, because of its very castration, is fitting of the quirky, humorous Frances. She is Frances Ha. In the moment where she puts her name in the display slot, we see a Frances who has accepted lack and who has embraced what that very lack provides—a space for something novel to come into being. Frances’s desire has thus been freed to move and play, no longer captured by the image of the Other.
Perhaps Baumbach and Gerwig’s film feels so timely because it is so out-of-time. Hysteria has been relegated to the annals of history as an antiquated phenomenon—laughable to the many who see in it nothing more than unscientific Freudian quackery. Yet, there is something more to the “Ha,” in Frances’ name, something laughable in itself—Ha Ha—something that suggests that, quite possibly, the joke is on us. That, perhaps our very urgency to forget the great hysteric has unknowingly revealed our own discomfort with the feminine, the unknown, and with lack. Perhaps therein lies the joke. For, what does the hysteric remind us of most if not that the unconscious is alive, well…and laughing?
Julie Futrell is completing her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. At themoment, she finds herself equally obsessed with Lacanian psychoanalysis, hysteria, and all things jazz or blues related.