This double feature idea makes for a nice challenge, because while the two films share many superficial similarities, I love one of them and don’t particularly care for the other. On paper, that doesn’t make sense at all. They’re both well-written, filled with sharp, observational humor. The stories concern women in their twenties living in New York City, both artists, both somewhat adrift as an unknown future looms. The films are very tightly focused on these protagonists; they appear in every scene. There’s an autobiographical aspect in that the actresses in the lead roles have family members who play the corresponding family members in the films. What the viewer thinks about the protagonists/performers is likely to have quite an impact on that viewer’s opinion of these movies in general. Perhaps these shiftless, slow-developing kids annoy you. Perhaps you find yourself to be one of them. These positions are not mutually exclusive. I readily admit that I identify with both of these characters. Still, I prefer Frances Ha to Tiny Furniture in virtually every respect.
The aesthetic differences leap right off the screen. I’m not one to say that black-and-white is intrinsically superior to color, by any means, although there is a tendency in the post-b&w era to treat the “retro look” with special reverence (e.g. Raging Bull, Schindler’s List, Manhattan — even Young Frankenstein). Judging by those examples, the decision to make a black-and-white film can be seen as a way of saying, “I’m making a very serious/important movie here, and you need to treat it as such.” In the case of Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, the antecedent is the French New Wave, which is a very different source of inspiration than, say, Bergman. The monochrome complements the breezy, musical nouvelle vague ambiance that’s already there in the film, personified by Greta Gerwig’s Anna Karina-like pixie energy as Frances. The visual pleasures of the film arise from its shading, the precise compositions and editing highlighting the crispness of the film’s world. Black-and-white does lend an element of timelessness to the movie, as well.
Tiny Furniture has an entirely different visual strategy, one that I was able to appreciate a little more on my second viewing. The meticulously plain digital video look is fitting for a character in limbo. Writer-director-star (-subject?) Lena Dunham makes sure nothing looks too good, an expression of her character Aura’s dissatisfaction with everything. Still, there are plenty of interesting shots. Dunham frequently places the camera on a tripod where it can get a view of a whole room and watch scenes steadily progress. Walls and other objects create natural split-screens to divide Aura psychologically from the other characters. It’s all admirably non-showy, but ultimately the movie just looks kind of dull. When the characters start to grate on me, as they surely do, the film’s appearance can’t come to their rescue.
Frances and Aura, as I said, are in pretty similar situations, but their reactions end up being very different. It all stems from their personalities. Frances is bubbly, excitable, and self-confident, where Aura is a little more high-strung and fragile. The plot of Frances Ha kicks off when the title character can no longer share an apartment with her best friend and must seek other arrangements. Aura, instead, rejects an offer to room with an old friend so she can keep living with her mother and younger sister. Granted, Frances is a few years older, so she should be further along on the path to independent adulthood, but she’s also just a more engaging and attractive presence. Plus, her artistic interests involve modern dance, whereas Aura’s involve YouTube videos. Aura has a degree in film, but she doesn’t seem to have developed the same kind of passion for it as Frances has for dancing and choreography. Tiny Furniture‘s structure is more daring, not offering the same kind of artistic breakthrough as Frances Ha, but a movie that pointedly lacks excitement about the whole idea of movies is to some extent self-defeating.
If we boil these films down to a single relationship (and it’s not that hard), then in Frances Ha it’s the relationship between Frances and her best friend Sophie, and in Tiny Furniture it’s the relationship between Aura and her mother. The arcs, again, are almost identical: a close-knit bond, tension and rupture, and a final reconciliation. Frances and Sophie both discover that they need to move on with their lives, but unfortunately they don’t discover it at the same time. Feelings of abandonment and jealousy naturally ensue. A night of drunken confessions that’s forgotten the next morning serves to wipe the slate clean, with a single hilarious shot of bare feet on pavement acting as a succinct wake-up call. In Tiny Furniture (the title of which is derived from Aura’s mother’s artistic pursuit: photographs of miniatures), the daughter slowly comes to understand how closely her own experience resembles the experience of her mother at that age. Covertly reading her mother’s old diary entries, Aura discovers the same uncertainty and artistic ambition. This isn’t a new insight, but it’s effectively conveyed. Looking at the entire casts of both films, I find Frances Ha‘s characters much more appealing. Maybe this is partly because Baumbach and Gerwig hold the male characters at arm’s length; it’s possible that, in their private moments, they’re as slimy as the men in Tiny Furniture. But I doubt it. The standout performance in Frances Ha easily belongs to the effervescent Gerwig, whereas Lena Dunham is upstaged by the charismatic performance of Jemima Kirke as bad influence Charlotte.
These are wildly privileged people who complain, and I totally understand if this leads some viewers to dislike them. Then again, they’re not as bad as all that. They at least make an attempt to get out of the doldrums, but they resist taking jobs that don’t have anything to do with their talents. Being an artist and making money are seldom related. That struggle isn’t the stuff of tragedy, but it’s true. I think the main reason Frances Ha comes out ahead is that Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig were old enough at the time to take a more objective view, nailing the balance between self-deprecation and self-absorption that Dunham couldn’t entirely master. The brilliant Paris sequence sums it all up, capturing with wry humor and sympathy the romance and bemusement of blowing a fabulous amount of money on a disappointing weekend trip. As I indicated, these movies trace my own personal development. I graduated from college the same year as Tiny Furniture‘s original release. As I write this, I’m about Frances’ age. These movies have something to say about my life, for better or worse. Living in New York sounds terrifying, but also wonderful.