This year marks a decade since Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha danced her way into UK cinemas. Co-written by and starring Greta Gerwig, the film follows aspiring dancer Frances Halladay as she navigates 20-something life in New York; bouncing from flatshare to flatshare, from one job to another and learning that just as you are growing and changing, so is everyone around you.
Like Frances, I’ve recently seen my female friends get into serious relationships, and started to worry about being left behind. It is inevitable that friends must grow apart in order to make space in our lives for romantic partners, families, careers and more. But it still hurts, especially for us single folk whose best friends are often the closest things we’ve got to a partner. When music, film, TV, theatre and literature have conditioned us to view romantic partners as the loves of our lives, what I love about Frances Ha is that it shows us how friends can be the loves of our lives too.
Over the past few years, the female friendship film has become synonymous with raunchy studio comedies like Bridesmaids, Bad Moms, Girls Trip and Booksmart. Bonds are solidified through shared experiences like explosive food poisoning at a bridal dress fitting or accidentally urinating over a New Orleans zipline. These films capture female friendship at its most chaotic whereas Frances Ha depicts female friendship at its most mundane and intimate. The film opens with a montage of Frances and her best friend Sophie running through New York City, cooking dinner in their apartment, reading to each other, playing board games, doing laundry and falling asleep in the same bed like an old married couple.
Not only does this montage capture a sense of tenderness and domestic bliss which is typically reserved for romantic relationships, but it also establishes Frances and Sophie as the film’s central pairing. Even though the film opens with Frances breaking up with her boyfriend Dan because she would rather continue living with Sophie than move in with him, it is not this break-up that marks the film’s inciting incident. In fact, Dan is rarely mentioned again. It is Frances’ break-up with Sophie, who first chooses to move out of their apartment and then moves away with her boyfriend Patch, which marks the film’s inciting incident. In this story, Sophie is Frances’ love interest.
Friendships don’t necessarily end when one gets into a serious romantic relationship, but they do have to evolve. Time and attention become divided, sometimes more towards the romantic partner which can make friendships feel less intimate. Frances is upset when Patch and Sophie can only stay for a “quick drink” after coming to watch her dance show.
Quality time is important to her as she fears becoming a “3-hour brunch friend”. After an argument about this, the pair are only driven further apart and Frances later learns that Sophie has moved to Tokyo with Patch. It comes as a shock to us too, given Sophie’s indifference towards her boyfriend earlier in the film; “Patch is a nice guy…for today” she says, of their relationship.
Bridesmaids is another, albeit very different, film which explores a female friendship in which both characters are in different stages of life. Lillian is recently engaged, happy in her job, and looking to settle down. On the other hand, Annie is single, working a job she hates after her business went bust and lives with an eccentric sibling duo.
Whilst Lillian has built a close-knit circle of female friends, from what we see, Lillian is Annie’s best and only friend. The film’s central tension derives from Annie’s attempts to remain Lillian’s best friend, as she feels herself being edged out by the annoyingly perfect newcomer Helen. Comparing Bridesmaids with Frances Ha, there are certainly parallels between Frances and Annie. But they also differ drastically, especially when it comes to their relationships with men.
Bridesmaids introduces a male love interest for Annie, who helps re-affirm her self-worth and rekindle her love of baking. Whereas Frances doesn’t really have a love interest. Men play secondary roles in her life and romantic relationships are never a key focal point for her. Even though she frequently jokes that she is “undateable”, Frances doesn’t necessarily want a boyfriend. She wants companionship, in whatever form she can find. It’s what she had with Sophie and it’s what she spends the rest of the film chasing as she attempts to forge new friendships and visit new places.
Later in the film, Frances returns to her alma mater to work as a waitress and resident assistant for the summer. Whilst working at a charity auction, she spots Patch and a drunken Sophie who has returned to New York for a family funeral. Sophie loudly announces their engagement to another auction guest, which shocks Frances. After arguing with Patch, Sophie sleeps in Frances’ dorm room. She apologises for throwing up in the trash can but does not apologise for how she has treated Frances.
It is Frances who attempts an apology, saying “I’m sorry, it’s just…if something funny happens at the deli, you’ll only tell one person and that’ll be Patch and I’ll never hear about it”. This line beautifully captures the role which mundanity plays in friendship. Growing up, we still expect our friends to be there for our major milestones but we have to accept that they may no longer be there every day. Frances recognises that she has been possessive over Sophie but must accept that as they change as people, their friendship must change too.
Drunk and struggling to make small talk at a dinner party, earlier in the film, Frances delivers an impromptu monologue to her fellow guests. She tells them “I want this one moment. It’s what I want in a relationship, which may explain why I’m still single now…it’s that thing where you love someone and they know it and they love you and you know it but it’s a party and you’re both talking to other people and you’re laughing and shining and you look across the room and catch each other’s eyes but not because you’re possessive or it’s precisely sexual but because that is your person in life. And it’s funny and sad but only because this life will end and it’s the secret world that exists right there, in public, unnoticed, that no one else knows about…”
The ‘secret world’ she describes calls back to the film’s opening montage, where we saw a glimpse into the world she shared with Sophie. As the film draws to a close, Frances starts working as a choreographer for young children and directs a showcase. Benji, Sophie and Patch attend to show their support. Although the film ends with Frances seemingly starting a relationship with Benji, we see her glance across the room and lock eyes with Sophie. At that moment, we see their secret world once more and Frances’ realisation that what she is looking for in a relationship, she already has with her best friend.
In my life, I have placed a lot of emphasis on romantic love and somehow naively believed that it would solve all my problems. But the most enduring love has been that of my female friends. Frances Ha recognises that female friendships are just as worthy of their own love stories. And that although these friendships evolve and often become part of a bigger picture, that secret world will always exist.
Published 17 May 2023
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