Movie Reviews
11:31 am
Fri May 24, 2013

Two New Stories With A New-Wave Vibe

Lately I've been re-watching vintage Truffaut movies, and I've been struck by the resurgent influence on American independent films of the French New Wave of the late '50s and '60s.

The Truffaut borrowings are fairly explicit in Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha, while Richard Linklater's Before Midnight takes its cues from Eric Rohmer's gentle but expansive talkfests. That's not a criticism: With mainstream movies seeming ever more machine-tooled nowadays, the impulse to reach back to an age of free-form filmmaking feels especially liberating.

Not that Frances Ha isn't also annoying. It's an ode to Baumbach's girlfriend Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the picture and plays Frances, a would-be dancer not terribly light on her feet — she's adorably galumphy. She's also childlike, almost pre-sexual, holding fast to her roommate and best friend, Sophie, played by Mickey Sumner. They hold hands, sometimes sleep in the same bed.

The movie centers on how grown-up life wallops Frances. She loses the dancing gig that pays her rent. Sophie pulls away. The camera holds on Frances' face as she takes each blow. But she galumphs on.

Critics have acclaimed the film as Baumbach's most generous after a series of hate letters to humankind — Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg. But the old Baumbach condescension to his characters is there, not least in the way sundry New York snobs fail to recognize Frances' magic.

He's very attached to the notion that for a scene to be dramatic, it has to build to a humiliation. The New Wave borrowings are hit-and-miss. The black-and-white cinematography is radiant, and I loved one particular traveling shot of Frances bounding and twirling along a sidewalk. But Baumbach appropriates one of my favorite scores — Georges Delerue's wistful waltz from King of Hearts -- and periodically cranks it up for quick shots of enchantment.

He does pull off a wonderful trick in combining — seamlessly — a French New Wave exuberance with the homegrown American genre known as mumblecore, in which youngish characters grope to express something definite in a world of indecision. The scenes with Frances and Sophie are messy, wavering in ways I've never seen; almost as fine are scenes in which Frances lolls around an apartment she comes to share with two self-indulgent but funny rich boys. When Baumbach's touch is glancing — when he cuts before the humiliation — the movie zings.

Before Midnight is a more daring feat. It's Linklater's third film with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, whose characters Jesse and Celine met on a train in 1995's Before Sunrise and got reacquainted under tense circumstances nine years later in Before Sunset.

This is a very different movie. Jesse and Celine have been together for nearly a decade — they live in France and have two golden-ringleted little girls — and the magic of discovery has worn off. Jesse is a successful novelist and doesn't seem fully present: He escapes into his career and lets Celine tend to the girls. But Celine isn't one to hide her disappointment, or her desire to measure their old life against their new.

Hawke and Delpy worked with Linklater on the script, and when you watch these exchanges — which zig and zag, in lengthy single takes — you almost believe they're thinking up the lines as they go along. The film is set on a Greek island, where they're on holiday, and like Eric Rohmer, Linklater uses the landscape, here cliffs and crags and ancient buildings, to underscore Celine's longing for permanence and Jesse's for flight. He wants to move to Chicago to be closer to the son from his previous marriage. Celine, who feels increasingly erased, isn't so sure.

Movies are full of people meeting and marrying. They're full of tortured breakups. The middle ground of Before Midnight is less explored. At times the film's down-to-earthiness, its severe naturalism, seems inadequate for capturing the immensity of the emotions. But the characters' thinking and groping and sometimes cutting each other dead in real time offers a different kind of amazement. Where else do single shots of two people talking feel this full?

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

Film critic David Edelstein has a review of two new American independent films. Noah Baumbach's "Frances Ha" stars Greta Gerwig as a free-spirited New York dancer, and Richard Linklater's "Before Midnight" revisits characters played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy for their third go-round at finding emotional fulfillment. Here's David.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Lately, I've been re-watching vintage Francois Truffaut movies, and I've been struck by the resurgent influence on American independent films of the French New Wave of the late '50s and '60s. The Truffaut borrowings are fairly explicit in Noah Baumbach's "Frances Ha," while Richard Linklater's "Before Midnight" takes its cues from Eric Rohmer's gentle, but expansive talk-fests. Mainstream movies seem machine-tooled nowadays, so the impulse to reach back to an age of free-form filmmaking feels especially liberating.

Not that "Frances Ha" isn't also annoying. It's an ode to Baumbach's girlfriend Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the picture and plays Frances, a would-be dancer not terribly light on her feet - she's adorably galumphy. She's also childlike, almost pre-sexual, holding fast to her apartment-mate and best friend, Sophie, played by Mickey Sumner. They hold hands, sometimes sleep in the same bed.

The movie centers on how grown-up life wallops Frances. She loses the dancing gig that pays her rent. Sophie pulls away. The camera holds on Frances' face as she takes each blow. But she galumphs on. Critics have acclaimed the film as Baumbach's most generous, after a series of hate letters to humankind like "Margot at the Wedding" and "Greenberg." But the old Baumbach condescension to his characters is there, in the way sundry New York snobs fail to recognize Frances' magic.

He's very attached to the notion that for a scene to be dramatic, it has to build to a humiliation. The French New Wave borrowings are hit-and-miss. The black-and-white cinematography is radiant, and I loved the traveling shot of Frances bounding and twirling along a sidewalk. But Baumbach appropriates one of my favorite scores - Georges Delerue's wistful waltz from "King of Hearts" - and periodically cranks it up for quick shots of enchantment.

He does pull off a wonderful trick. He combines - seamlessly - French New Wave exuberance with the homegrown American genre known as mumblecore, in which youngish characters grope to express something definite in a world of indecision. The scenes with Frances and Sophie are messy, wavering in ways I've never seen.

And almost as fine are scenes in which Frances lolls around an apartment she comes to share with two self-indulgent, but funny rich boys. When Baumbach's touch is glancing, when he cuts before the humiliation, the movie zings.

"Before Midnight" is a more daring feat. It's Linklater's third film with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, whose characters Jesse and Celine met on a train in 1995's "Before Sunrise," and got reacquainted under tense circumstances nine years later in "Before Sunset."

This is a very different movie. Jesse and Celine have been together nearly a decade. They live in France and have two golden-ringleted little girls, and the magic of discovery has worn off. Jesse is a successful novelist, and doesn't seem fully present. He escapes into his career and lets Celine tend to the girls. But Celine isn't one to hide her disappointment, or her desire to measure their old life against their new.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BEFORE MIDNIGHT")

JULIE DELPY: (as Celine) Hey. Can I ask you a question?

ETHAN HAWKE: (as Jesse) Sure.

DELPY: (as Celine) If we were meeting for the first time today on a train, would you find me attractive?

HAWKE: (as Jesse) Of course.

DELPY: (as Celine) No, but really, right now as I am? Would you start talking to me? Would you ask me to get off the train with you?

HAWKE: (as Jesse) Well, I mean, you're asking a theoretical question. I mean, what would my life situation be? I mean, technically, wouldn't I be cheating on you?

DELPY: (as Celine) OK. Why can't you just say yes?

HAWKE: (as Jesse) No, no, no. I did. I said of course.

DELPY: (as Celine) No, no, no. I wanted you to say something romantic, and you blew it. OK?

HAWKE: (as Jesse) Oh, oh, OK. OK. All right. Wait. If I saw you on a train, OK, listen. I would lock eyes with you.

DELPY: (as Celine) Uh-huh.

HAWKE: (as Jesse) And I would walk right up to you and say, hey, baby. You are making me as horny as a billy goat in pepper patch.

DELPY: (as Celine) Oh! Stop it. That's disgusting. Billy goat. No. The truth is, OK, you failed the test. And the fact is...

(as Jesse) No!

(as Celine) ...you would not pick me up on a train. You would not even notice me, a fat-ass, middle-aged mom losing her hair.

HAWKE: (as Jesse) OK, losing your hair.

DELPY: (as Celine) Yeah, that's me.

HAWKE: (as Jesse) You set me up to fail on this one.

DELPY: (as Celine) OK. True.

HAWKE: (as Jesse) You did, all right?

DELPY: (as Celine) True, true, true.

HAWKE: (as Jesse) All right. But in the real world, Baldy, OK, on game day, when it mattered, I did talk to you on a train. OK? I did that. It was the best thing I ever did, all right?

DELPY: (as Celine) Really?

HAWKE: (as Jesse) Yeah.

DELPY: (as Celine) Look at the goats.

HAWKE: (as Jesse) Hey.

DELPY: (as Celine) Hello.

HAWKE: (as Jesse) Yeah.

EDELSTEIN: Hawke and Delpy worked with Linklater on the script, and when you watch these exchanges - which zig and zag, in lengthy, single takes - you almost believe they're thinking up the lines as they go along. The film is set on a Greek island, where they're on holiday, and like Eric Rohmer, Linklater uses the landscape - here cliffs and crags and ancient buildings - to underscore Celine's longing for permanence and Jesse's for flight.

He wants to move to Chicago to be closer to his son from a previous marriage. Celine, who feels increasingly erased, isn't so sure. Movies are full of people meeting and marrying. They're full of tortured breakups. The middle ground of "Before Midnight" is less explored. At times, the film's down-to-earthiness, its severe naturalism seems inadequate for capturing the immensity of the emotions.

But the characters' thinking and groping and sometimes cutting each other dead in real time offers a different kind of amazement. Where else do single shots of two people talking feel this full?

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. Follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair, and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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