For many of us, the world sets unrealistic expectations of being materially or academically successful at a young age, leaving behind a lingering emptiness for the rest of our lives when we fail to achieve that in our 20s, maybe even our 30s. It’s the heavy wistfulness of wishing you were more, and the resonating regret because you weren’t. So we keep on chasing an ideal just within reach, but never winning the race.
The films co-written by Greta Gerwig explore what it’s like to be trapped in this liminality, exposing the futility of dedicating your efforts to create a place you can call your own, only to look around and realise it doesn’t exist.
In her world, this place doesn’t exist because we look for ourselves in others, hoping to find a familiar face (our own) gazing back at us. Sometimes, we even try our best to stay in an idealised past which no longer exists, simply to avoid facing a future that already feels like it’s falling apart before it even begins. While most of the characters in her films suffer from this disillusionment, the camera never chastises them for it, but rather, wraps them in empathy–because it’s inevitable that we are born into a society which sets us up to pursue ideals that can only ever exist in fantasy. This delicate balance between conveying the futility of this pursuit, and empathising with the characters who desperately cling to it, is what lends Gerwig’s films the sense of universality which they are critically acclaimed for. Her films are engulfed in a tender humility which reminds us that regardless of who you are, your struggles are heard. Sometimes, that’s all you need to keep moving on. I have picked two films of hers (Frances Ha and Mistress America) that spoke to me most on the futility of ideals. These films may also give you a sense of her style of writing which imprints heavily on her recent critically acclaimed directorial debut, Lady Bird.
Mistress America (2015) dir. Noah Baumbach
Mistress America is all about the fictionality of our personalities against the glittering backdrop of New York City, where everyone is anyone but themselves. The film traces the relationship between Brooke Cardinas (Greta Gerwig) and Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke), as they struggle to keep up with the imagined glamour of the city and still maintain the masks they wear. While Tracy looks up to Brooke as an ideal, Brooke’s identity in itself is a haphazard concoction, as she is merely piecing together a bunch of idiosyncrasies to sell a performance she thinks others might desire from her.
When Tracy realises the flaws in Brooke’s many performances, she writes a short story titled “Mistress America” based on Brooke’s increasing disillusionment in hopes of achieving her own idealistic aspirations of being an accomplished writer. Ironically, it is through reading this work of fiction Brooke comes to a truthful epiphany about her lies, admitting that her performances arise from the inability to make her authentic self work in the world. Baumbach and Gerwig’s decision to portray this epiphany in such an ironic manner is a poignant statement about how truth can’t be sought in the material world, as we wear personas knitted from idealistic perceptions of success, never staying true to what we feel. Therefore, as everyone is tied up with being bigger than who they really are, the real world becomes just as false as the one in fiction; we can no longer tell the two spheres apart. In the end, since Tracy’s acceptance into a prestigious writing circle ironically hinges on a script which exposes the futility of ideals, she eventually realises her own disillusionment and abandons the literary circle.
I would like to think that the success of the film arises from how this epiphany is not imbued with a burdened sense of defeat – yes, both of them had to let go of socially defined notions of success, but in exchange, we get a renewed sense of optimism, of new beginnings and fresh starts. The last shot of the film reaffirms this hopeful sentiment: we see Brooke and Tracy chatting happily in a cafe, slightly masked by a glass window. For once, we can’t hear what they’re saying, nor can we fully experience their surroundings. It is a sharp contrast from the background noise and rapid dialogue which pervades the film earlier on. The muted ending, combined with the inference of the glass window, seem to suggest that whatever the women are chatting about, their thoughts are finally and utterly divorced from the vicious expectations of society, allowing for renewal and, maybe, authenticity to shine.
Frances Ha (2012) dir. Noah Baumbach
Unlike Mistress America, where everyone is rushing to be an adult, at the heart of Frances Ha lies the desire to recapture a lost youth, the times where you and your best friend were still the same person just with different hair; it’s the period of joy before you both grew up and became adults that eventually pretend not to have known each other in the first place. Except in this film, the protagonist Frances Ha (Greta Gerwig), is in deep denial that life is moving faster than she can, resorting to behaving in an almost childlike fashion in order to relive a past which no longer exists, to revive a younger self that society chastises. She’s nicknamed “undateable”–a pun on singlehood and her staunch resistance to the vicissitudes of time. The pun exposes the unbridgeable gap between herself and what the functional adult society expects her to be, revealing an anachronistic individual who is trapped in a bygone era and is, therefore, undateable.
In the film, this gap is represented by the close friendship between Frances and Sophie (Micky Sunmer). The beginning of the film shows the two women behaving more like high schoolers rather than adults, somewhat enclosed in a bubble of youthful idealism and innocence. However, Sophie leaves this bubble, soon embodying all the trappings of a functional adult. She gets engaged and travels the world, all while leaving Frances behind, hopelessly searching for another Sophie in every other stranger she meets. Sophie was the only person Frances had to validate her remembrance of a long gone past, and to lose her, signals the foreshadowing of the shattering of this blissful façade of youth. As a result, Sophie becomes the signifier for both a lost youth and a tedious, mundane future we soon have to deal with. In contrast, Frances’ character becomes liminal, hovering between these two states, never quite achieving both. Her identity hangs in a state of placelessness. While her blissful youth is long gone, she is unable to inhabit her supposed future. Gerwig and Baumbach physically represent the despondency of her placelessness by taking Frances on a forced vacation to Paris, where she is unable to experience the stereotypical romantic ideals of the city, but is instead ironically reduced to loneliness in the city full of idealised lovers.
However, it is in this foreign place, where Frances is rid of all reminders of past and future, which somehow propels her to move on from her youth. Sophie calls, but Frances no longer begs her to stay. She takes on a part-time job and lets go of her failed dream of becoming a dancer. Instead, she takes up a position as a choreographer; people go to her shows; she becomes the functional adult expected of her. Yet, the shared look of longing between the two women towards the end of the film leaves the audience with a lingering desire for carefree days and youthful innocence. It tells us that while this friendship is not gone, the days of intimacy between them somehow is.
Are we to mourn for the past or celebrate Frances’ newfound independence? The film doesn’t provide an easy answer to this question, but it does allow us to see both the beauty of living in the past and moving forward into the present. The last shot of the film reveals that while Frances’ full name is Frances Halliday, she is only able to fit “Frances Ha” into the constricted space of a letterbox, her last name shortened to a laugh. I like to think it ironically gives a final message that there is more room for childlike humour and joy in our lives, even when adulthood feels like a slowly suffocating state. Maybe Frances is meant to go on achieving a balance between youthful innocence and adulthood, and maybe one day we can too.
To sum it all up, it would be amiss to talk about Greta Gerwig without mentioning her directorial debut, Lady Bird. Her stunning debut definitely bears many structural and thematic similarities with the films I have mentioned above: both Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and Brooke chase a romanticised ideal of their lives only to find it disparagingly inadequate; both Lady Bird and Frances Ha have to face monumental turning points in their lives which involves the acceptance of adulthood, and the struggle to figure out what it even means to be an adult. However, Greta Gerwig takes it a notch further to add a tender portrayal of a mother and daughter relationship which is interspersed by miscommunication, repressed silences, and innocent mistakes. Yet above all, this love is constant; it shines through Marion (Laurie Metcalf) staying up late to alter her daughter’s dress, it shines through the letters she attempts to write to her, but never sends because nothing sounded good enough. It is this relationship which marks Lady Bird as a film that is different from her previous screenwriting efforts, despite the similarities in thematic concerns. While Sophie stands as a clear character foil to Frances, and Tracy as Brooke’s source of epiphany, both Lady Bird and Marion are written in such a way that Marion is part of Lady Bird and vice versa. Who knows where Greta Gerwig will take us next, but it will certainly be worth looking forward to.