Rebecca Miller’s first film since 2009’s The Private Lives of …
Mia Hansen-Løve’s film follows the 20-year journey of a young French DJ named Paul, who gets caught up in the house and electro scene that propelled Daft Punk to stardom. Daft Punk is even represented in peripheral roles by Vincent Lacoste as Thomas Bangalter and Arnaud Azoulay as Guy-Maneul De Homen-Christo, and there’s a running joke throughout the film where the pair can’t get into clubs because nobody recognizes them without their famous helmets. One of the film’s highlights comes in a scene where they play their historic hit “Da Funk” for the first time at a house party, and everyone starts to feel the energy that this is something exciting and new.
In 2009, New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani referred to Philip Roth’s novella The Humbling as “an overstuffed short story, […] a slight, disposable work about an aging man’s efforts to grapple with time and loss and mortality, and the frustrations of getting old.” In 2015, that sentiment rings just as true of Barry Levinson’s adaptation of the same work. The Humbling runs too long, dawdles too much, makes hollow caricatures of its women, and muddles its intentions. Its most redeeming features are its performances; Al Pacino is in top form, with Greta Gerwig playfully keeping up. But neither can elevate this failed attempt at pathos above what it is: bland.
In Ti West’s The House of the Devil, an earnest college student tries to get rent together by taking on a last minute babysitting job. Samantha (Jocelin Donahue of The Burrowers and The End of Love) willfully ignores the inherent danger in going out to a remote house to provide care for complete strangers. Her clients are incredibly desperate for help but the promise of fast cash is far too enticing for the young woman. Samantha’s job provides a quiet, creeping evil that makes the audience hold its collective breath for a protracted time before the action kicks in. It’s effective in sustaining a lasting dread of harm of the unknown and accomplishes what most movies associated with the Devil fail to do- convince us that followers of Satan and their ultimate goal are a genuine threat without edging into cheesy or overwrought territory that is well-worn.
Few films sprawl like Hansen-Løve’s latest, which spans twenty years, surveying the landscape of garage, techno, and house music, bumping into the likes of Daft Punk. It’s a film that is packed with an incredibly energy, specifically through music, but what is critical about this idea is that the energy is attached to that music. It would be far more frivolous and forgetful were the energy to simply exist as the de facto atmosphere of the film, but Hansen-Løve understands the power of music in a singular manner. In one scene, Paul will be at a party or DJ-ing one, the music and the party’s attendants both turned up. She’ll cut to another scene after the party, and immediately there’s a sense of loss and melancholy. The energy doesn’t just dissipate, it disappears. The deflation of energy in a film is a dangerous thing to attempt and often regarded as a weakness, but since the film is very much about Paul and his connection to music, it’s crucial to understand that that is his escape. The film even names the second of its two “parts” “Lost in Music”. It understands that this escapism and submersion into one’s passion as a way to avoid life is a double-edged sword, only workable and usable up to a certain point before it becomes a risk itself.
By now, young people scratching and clawing their way towards adulthood is a quintessential, clichéd story. The wide-eyed dreamer trying to make it in the big city is one of the hoariest tricks in the book, but Frances Ha is a welcome new variation on this theme, a striking and beautiful ode to youth and its many flaws. Headlined by Great Gerwig, Frances Ha is nothing short of a triumph, an endearing, unforced, and honest story of failures and frustrations.