[Editor’s Note: The following contains some spoilers for Frances Ha and No].
Chile, 1988. The future of a nation rests on a referendum with a shockingly simple choice. “Yes,” a vote to retain President Augusto Pinochet for another eight years, or “No,” for… any alternative. A dictatorship in control of all national media outlets against a scattershot opposition, mercifully granted a measly half-hour of airtime per day to tell their side. Pablo Larrain’s radical film No shows the unorthodox, forward-thinking way that the underdogs steered an entire country into the future. It also does so with a black humor worthy of the dire circumstance.
The film portrays a political battle fought with creativity and marketing – the enlisted troops made up of advertisers and their agencies. At the center of the conflict is Rene (Gael Garcia Bernal), who when he’s not kick/push-ing his way through the streets in a pair of stonewashed denim jeans, spearheads the “No” campaign by devising an offbeat response to the unrelenting pessimism Pinochet represents. He’s fed a laundry list of typical activist fodder – statistics of the “disappeared,” images of police brutalization – but Rene’s forgoes them for a streamlined concept: happiness. Rene unwittingly embodies a philosophy once spoken by Don Draper, that happiness is “freedom from fear… a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is okay.” No’s greatest strength is in the conflicted depiction of the hilarious resulting consequences.
Jingles, rainbows, people skipping through fields, and other inanely pleasant scenes fill his ads, marking them as a diametric opposite to the government’s oppression. The content itself is simplistic, but the message is effective. By utilizing the grammar of commercialism to pitch his idyllic vision of democracy, Rene anticipates modern commercial tactics and achieves the unthinkable. But the film gains complexity in contrasting the “win” of Rene’s stunt with those who fought for years to see this moment realized. What were their toil and strife for if they’d ultimately be trivialized by a juvenile final marketing push? It’s a great victory, but a conflicted one – even Rene, depressed and divorced, is a visible contrast to his own conception. Gael Garcia Bernal wonderfully captures the film’s complexity, his eyes capable of expressing volumes.
Taking a nod from his protagonist’s philosophy, Larrain transposes these grave circumstances through a quirky, humorous lens. Shot on a 1983 U-matic video camera, the images are boxy and lo-res, with frequent flares and blurs that fly in the face of today’s HD-crazed landscape. The technique allows him to use actual video material from the era and have it blend seamlessly in. It’s a technique that immediately elevates the film to strange new heights. On the heels of two previous Pinochet-era films, No throws the blinds open on Larrain’s somewhat grim and dusty worldview in its eccentricity. The grubby images lend themselves to this shaggy dog story, and a true deadpan comedy lurks beneath the surface of their revolution.
Though it represents a tonal departure from his previous work, Larrain has made his most effective film to date. In its balance of wry humor and serious themes, No becomes both an artifact and artistic statement all its own. By waging a war of optimism, Rene manufactures sunshine and cheer that might not truly be there. Does he sacrifice integrity in pursuit of achieving the intended result? It’s a provocative question, and one the film poses without electing to rule on. Sometimes it’s better to just stay positive.
If a national crisis can prove great fodder for comedy, then why not a personal one? Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s Frances Ha is another of the year’s funniest films, finding humor in the aimless struggle of twenty-somethings in modern day New York City. A film which began as a series of emails with fragments of ideas – scenes, characters, situations – Frances slowly congealed as a whimsical ode to anxiety. Baumbach and Gerwig squeeze every melancholic ounce of joy from their heroine’s lifestyle, highlighting the ways an indifferent world can still hold some promise of happiness.
Gerwig stars as Frances, a semi-young semi-professional dancer – just two examples of the film’s many “semis.” When her best friend/roommate/figurative-partner-in-crime (Mickey Sumner) moves in with a boyfriend, Frances couch surfs across Brooklyn (through maybe stumble is more apt than surf) while vaguely grasping at adulthood. She has a giant heart but struggles with how to wield it – she’ll run completely across town to an ATM in order to pay for a dinner date, or spontaneously make omelets late at night when her friends consider takeout – and at one point unabashedly apologizes for “not being a real person.” Gerwig brings an effervescence and charm to Frances’s foibles, and it’s hard not to root for her despite her self-thwarting idealism.
Unlike the prickly, skeptical slants of Baumbach’s last three films, Frances doesn’t admonish the wayward lives of its characters, instead highlighting the hilarity of their coping mechanisms. There’s a warmth and verve here that harken back to 1995’s Kicking and Screaming. Just as in that film, Baumbach depicts of a milieu of privilege and the at-times trivial nature of its issues – case in point, Frances’s friend Benji casually toils away on an unsolicited Gremlins 3 script. Baumbach has a skill for locating the endearingly familiar from the mundane – because these characters are largely idle, there’s space to include non-sequitors such as Frances pressing her arms in a doorway and then letting them drift upward. Through economic concerns provide a context for Frances’s journey, Baumbach declines to become preachy on the subject, instead allowing events to play out free of judgment.
Baumbach has always been something of a successor to Woody Allen, and the use of black-and-white in New York makes it seem like Frances could be inhabiting an actual Woody Allen film. Frances’s rapid editing style, culled in part from the French New Wave, is almost a distilled form of sketch comedy – scenes are pared down to their essential comedic element – we get the punchline and continue on. Like a collage, the style allows these distinct little moments to accumulate into a complete portrait of Frances the world she inhabits. Because the film hones in so distinctly on these minute details, the viewer’s resonance may vary depending on their familiarity to such situations.
The film explores that transitory period between structured education and self-sustained adulthood, which at times can feel more like a purgatory. There’s a sense that Frances is running in circles – between jobs, apartments, and friends – without really ever getting anywhere. Key to the film’s success is her warped sense of humor, which never allows the story to become overly cynical. Though Baumbach conclusion is upbeat it tone, it’s nonetheless cut with a hint of futility. There’s something commendable in seeing Frances emerge from her myriad miscues without a completely crushed spirit. Both Frances Ha and No perform the tricky balancing act between outright absurdity and serious drama. Ultimately its in both films’ rejection of a stodgy seriousness that entrances us to feel all the more.