This essay is by our guest writer, Marina Vuotto.
“It’s that thing when you’re with someone, and you love them and they know it, and they love you and you know it…but it’s a party, and you’re both talking to other people, and you’re laughing and shining…and you look across the room and catch each other’s eyes – but not because you’re possessive, or it’s precisely sexual, but because…that is your person in this life. And it’s funny and sad, but only because this life will end, and it’s this secret world that exists right there in public, unnoticed, that no one else knows about. It’s sort of like how they say that other dimensions exist all around us, but we don’t have the ability to perceive them.”
Frances Ha’s personal definition of love is so delicately observed, so personal yet universal, so accurate in its specificity, that it has a poetic quality to it; Greta Gerwig’s delivery, as she fumbles for the right words, gesticulates and looks around for validation, gives body to Frances’ attempt to explain something unexplainable, to articulate a feeling that’s powerful yet wordless. Her way of giving the speech has that tone of a friend trying to explain what they mean, only to realize that there’s no need to finish their sentence because you’ve understood it despite their inability to express it precisely; because you know them, because you’ve felt it.
And yet, where words fail, cinema steps in: when it’s truly great, not only does it substitute explaining with showing, but it’s able to recreate a feeling to immerse you in it and make you live it. And as difficult as recreating that particular feeling – that thing – is, three films get pretty close: Before Sunrise, The Royal Tenenbaums, and, of course, Frances Ha. In each one of them, the most powerful love scenes are played out through a quiet exchange of looks, which brings the secret world Frances talks about to life.
Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995)
Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, thoroughly and openly romantic in all three installments, shows romance at its most naïve and idealistic state. The first film, Before Sunrise, follows Jesse and Celine as they fall in love and gush over one another in the course of the night they decide to spend together after meeting for the first time on a train, knowing that they’ll have to say goodbye when the morning comes. It’s a very wordy film, considering that it mostly follows its two characters as they wander around the city and talk, talk, talk, growing increasingly intimate both spiritually and physically. And yet, the long walk-and-talks are interspersed with quiet moments in which Linklater lingers on the way in which their bodies interact, and especially the way in which they look at each other.
It becomes a trope throughout the film to have both characters look at each other when they think the other one doesn’t notice, only to look away when she/he does. Through this play of looks they develop their courtship, seeing and pretending not to see, seeking attention and pretending to be embarrassed by it, until Celine admits, “I like to feel his eyes on me when I look away”. At this moment, this playful dynamic ends and becomes intimacy: this is Celine’s way of saying, not only do I look at you, I see you. At this point, it is clear to both of them that they have gone past flirting and dangerously close to love, just as they are about to be separated.
As dawn breaks and the moment of separation is approaching, Jesse steps in front of Celine and stops her. He places his hands on her shoulders and asks her to stand still so that he can take a mental picture of her. They look straight into each other’s eyes and stand like that for a while, regarding each other, taking each other in, aware that they’ve lived something of which there will be no trace left apart from this shared memory. This prolonged stare is the true mark of the intimacy they have achieved. The “mental picture” scene conveys the urgency of Jesse and Celine’s feelings, the romantic tragedy of their imminent separation, the intensity of their connection, and the shared awareness of what it means to both of them. It’s shot as if it were a conversation, with a shot/reverse-shot of their faces, but most of the communication is unspoken: Jesse and Celine quietly smile at each other as if they were sharing an inside joke that nobody else can understand, effectively keeping us all out of it. And yet, it’s heart-breaking in its ability to make us guess exactly what they’re thinking and feeling. It’s the epitome of the “secret world” that Frances talks about, of which we, as an audience, are lucky enough to get a glimpse of.
The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
Margot and Richie’s relationship is the romantic heart of The Royal Tenenbaums. On the one hand, it reflects how deeply the dysfunctionality of their family has scarred them, and on the other, the pureness of their feelings for each other provides a counterpoint to the years of jealousy, pressure, and resentment which imbue the Tenenbaums’ family history. All of these are in the background in the scene in which Margot and Richie meet again after not seeing each other for months. Richie has just come back from a trip around the world on which he went specifically to get over his love for Margot, who is now married to a man she doesn’t love. And yet, while these elements contribute to the intensity of their reunion, they are momentarily set aside when they see each other.
As the narrator informs us, Margot is late, so Richie sits down and waits for her bus to come. She is the last passenger to get off. As she does, the diegetic sound mutes down, all the extras that were so far crowding the scene leave the frame, and the normal speed changes, as we see Margot getting off the bus in slow motion. She stands still for a second, in complete silence. Then Nico’s song “These Days” starts playing. Time first stops and then dilutes, the narrator stops speaking, and every other sound is drowned as she starts walking towards Richie. Nothing else exists except the two of them.
Wes Anderson, through the slow-motion, the choice of soundtrack, and the camera movements, recreates the universal feeling of palpitation which comes with seeing the person you love after a long time. Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson, through the way they look at each other, imbue the scene with a kind of melancholy that is specific to their characters and their story.
Everything comes together beautifully to create one of the most romantic, emotionally-charged scenes of the film and, in fact, the entirety of Anderson’s filmography. The dream-like effect that it achieves suspends the narration and lingers throughout the rest of the film, echoing each time that Margot and Richie interact. Very few words are spoken, and only by Margot. The conversation is reduced to her three lines, to which Richie responds with subdued gestures. “It’s nice to see you too,” she says, despite him not saying anything suggesting that he is, indeed happy to see her. And yet, she knows he doesn’t even need to voice his feelings because she can read them on his face, because they’re each other’s person. And we also know because we’ve waited for her with him, seen her through his eyes, shared his heartbeat.
Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012)
When Frances makes her speech about love, she is as lost as she’s ever been. She is practically homeless, jobless, single, and she has just had a big fight with her best friend Sophie. She’s not talking about anyone in particular; not about her last boyfriend with whom she breaks up at the beginning of the film because she’d rather be with Sophie than with him, and not about Sophie either, who has a new boyfriend that Frances just found out about and is about to move to Japan with. So her description of love is purely idealistic. She isn’t describing what she has or had, but what she wants and expects, “which might explain why I’m single now, ha ha.”
Her unrealistic expectations are part of the reason why she’s so lost in the first place, and once she realizes it, things start falling back into place, from her career to her living situation to her relationship with Sophie. At the end of the film, after her first successful small show as a choreographer, she shares a moment with her former flatmate Benji which hints at a possible romantic involvement between the two, but the big emotional climax belongs to Frances and Sophie. It happens exactly as Frances has described it, just not with a strictly romantic partner. Sophie is talking to her boyfriend, and Frances is being endlessly praised by her boss, but it’s Sophie’s approval she seeks, so she looks across the room and there she is, catching her eye, smiling at her. They make eyes at each other for a while, with Frances/Gerwig’s expression going from anxious and expectant, to joyful once she realizes that Sophie is proud of her; that she is there to support her and she always will. Again, no words are exchanged between the two of them, but the message they send each other across the room is clear: “I love you.” And it doesn’t have to be romantic to be just as important, if not more. In fact, in that look is Frances’ realization that what she was after has always been there.
It’s the quietest kind of love, the one that usually doesn’t get to be a part of the grand romantic finale, but Frances Ha makes it tangible and universal. While not everyone has fallen in love with a stranger on a train, or with their adopted sibling, friendship is much more relatable, and as Frances Ha shows, sometimes just as romantic.