Greta Gerwig

Little Women (2019, Greta Gerwig)

Little Women has two parallel timelines. There’s the present, starting in post-Civil War New York City with teacher and pulp writer Saoirse Ronan living in boarding house (where she also teaches). Then it flashes back to Ronan’s life seven years earlier, at home in rural Massachusetts; she’s the second oldest of four sisters; oldest is Emma Watson, youngest is Eliza Scanlen, Florence Pugh is second-youngest. Pugh sees Ronan as an adversary for the world’s attention while Ronan might see Pugh as annoyance but often doesn’t see her at all. For the first half of the film, the flashbacks are steady. We meet mom Laura Dern, who volunteers all her time to help the war effort, the husband and father off in the (Union) Army, the girls fending for themselves as far as attention goes.

Ronan’s always been the writer—writing plays for them to act out—Watson’s the actor, Pugh’s the painter, Scanlen’s the musician. The flashbacks reveal how these talents flourished during the home front days. At a party, Ronan meets the new neighbor, similarly aged Timothée Chalamet, newly orphaned and now living with his grandfather, rich guy Chris Cooper. Chalamet and Ronan are both socially awkward wallflowers but extroverted ones, so they immediately hit it off. And through Chalamet, the families reconnect and become good friends, with Cooper opening his house to the sisters, offering to share in the intellectual wealth. There are books for Ronan, paintings for Pugh, a piano for Scanlen… and James Norton for Watson.

Norton is Chalamet’s tutor, penniless and just the right kind of dreamy for Watson.

Of course, seeing them meet and gently fall in love comes in a different context thanks to director (and screenwriter) Gerwig’s bifurcated narrative. We’ve seen their less than glamorous present—in fact, when they marry and move into the same house we’ve seen in the future… it’s a bittersweet moment. Watson’s the one sister with the express dream of having a family and while Ronan can still write, Pugh can still paint, Watson’s getting frustrated. So her flashbacks have the shadow of the future cast against them, which really neatly resolves in an echo in the third act, but still… it’s rough seeing her dreams stalling.

Pugh’s also giving up on her dreams in the present, deciding she’s only ever going to be an excellent painter and never a genius, even though she agrees with Chalamet the all-male academy in charge of assigning genius is severely wanting. The film’s got a lot of discussions about a woman’s potential, but the ones between Pugh and Chalamet are striking, maybe because the most we know abut Chalamet to start is Ronan’s going to turn down a marriage proposal someday. Even as the film—in the present—discusses events in the past, Gerwig never goes so far as to promise they’re going to get played out onscreen. So when the film actually does the marriage proposal flashback and it cuts through Chalamet and Ronan; even though we’ve spent most of the film with them past this trauma, it’s even sharper, even bloodier, for knowing the characters better. For having seen them develop to this point and then past it.

Little Women’s flashback device is fairly singular. It’s not a piece where the story is in the flashback (but it’s also not one where the story isn’t in the flashback), it’s not a piece where the protagonist drifts between; in fact, once you realize what’s going on in the present, the film checking in with anyone besides Ronan is mildly unwelcome. There’s nothing good waiting in the present for anyone it seems, whereas the past is full of laughter, music, dancing, celebration. But the flashbacks also aren’t for happy moments, the present for the sad. And even when the correspond with one another, even when Gerwig’s doing it for best effect, they’re not for echoing either. Gerwig’s an exceptionally “hands off” director as far as style goes, she never tries to show up the unfolding production; every choice furthers the film as a whole. The flashbacks and the present compliment one another for the film’s sake, which isn’t even the same thing as for the characters’ sake. Ronan and Pugh in the present get character studies while Watson gets some of one in the past, but Gerwig uses that approach to further things later on. Ronan and Pugh’s adversarial relationship exists mostly in the characters’ (and viewers’) perceptions. The tight focus on the actors in the first act and half means later on, when Gerwig’s got a lot more group-based, epical action to deal with, Ronan, Pugh, and Watson have a lot more inherent heft.

Meanwhile Scanlen, grown up watching her sisters and seeing their hopes and dreams rise and fall, has wisdom, just not the wisdom her sisters need (or know they need) because it’s all very messy. Of the four sisters, Scanlen is the one with the most obvious possibility for her talent. The stage isn’t in Watson’s cards because she’s too middle class, Pugh and Ronan have major obstacles in any pursuit to get paid for their artistic talents, but Scanlen’s piano playing seems within the realm of possibility. Not too lofty a dream for a young woman in the late nineteenth century.

All of the sisters, in one way or another, are acutely aware of their situations. Watson knows marrying penniless but dreamy Norton means hard work and a hard life. Ronan and Pugh both know a woman’s best potential from rich aunt Meryl Streep, who revels in crushing her nieces’ artistic dreams with the hard facts about what a woman can and cannot do. Well, she revels in it initially, but once Streep gets talking about the situation, the mean-spiritedness fades fast, as she hears the terrible words she’s speaking. The best any of the sisters can hope for is Pugh marrying a rich man who’ll let her take care of them all, including parents Dern and Bob Odenkirk. When we finally get to see Streep and Odenkirk together, after she’s spent the film running him down, is a fantastic moment; Gerwig’s able to get in emotional gut punches thanks to the flashback structure, but she’s also able reverse it and fill the moments with joy.

The film’s constant isn’t joy, however, not on its own. It’s anger. And maybe joy in spite of anger. Maybe at the start of the second act, in flashback, Dern has a talk with Ronan about how Dern—who we’ve seen as a homemaking saint to this point—has a secret no one has ever guessed. Well, except maybe Streep. She lives in a constant state of anger at the world, at the unfairness of it, the evil in it, and refuses to let it better her.

At this moment, Dern frankly becomes the most interesting performance in the entire film. She and Ronan are phenomenal together and Ronan’s great, Pugh’s great, Chalamet’s excellent, but when Dern’s in a scene, you watch Dern. You want to understand how Dern is getting through this moment. But also Ronan. Ronan’s inherited the blinding anger and works to quell it, which—again thanks to the structure—informs all her scenes previous to the conversation with Dern… including the present day ones. The flashbacks inform on the characters in the present, sort of bake in textures in real-time, but with Ronan, it’s like she gets an additional two layers of depth with the wave of a wand or flick of a fountain pen. It’s awesome.

Because even with—I think dazzling is the about the only appropriately enthusiastic adjective—even with dazzling performances from Pugh, Chalamet, Dern, Streep, and excellent ones from Watson, Scanlen, Cooper, it’s Ronan’s film. Gerwig gives her this big silent acting moment, when what plays across Ronan’s face is what Little Women leaves its audience with, it’s all about Ronan. And her anger and her joy. And what she does with both of them. It’s a breathtaking finale, with the film’s perfect score (by Alexandre Desplat) accompanying. Even though she’s adapting an oft-adapted novel, Gerwig pushes the ending until it’s right for the adaptation, collapsing flashback and flash forward, dream and reality, until it can hinge solely on Ronan’s expressions as she reacts to the culminating moment.

And Gerwig and Ronan nail it because of course they do. The last thirty minutes of Little Women, if it didn’t bombard the emotions, tugging and shoving between happy angry sobs and sad angry sobs—I’m not even sure why I was crying at the very end, though I know Desplat didn’t help—the last thirty minutes would be a victory lap. Just due to the nature of the plot, Gerwig’s hardest “sell” comes at the end of the second act, beginning of the third. So when she and the film are able to keep climbing instead of just sailing to the finish, it’s glorious. And sad. And joyous. And sad.

It’s spectacular work. Everything technical is outstanding—Gerwig’s direction, Yorick Le Saux’s photography, Nick Houy’s editing, Desplat’s music, Jess Gonchor’s production design is breathtaking; Jacqueline Durran’s costumes are superlative. Little Women looks—and sounds (not just the score, the sound editing is great)—amazing.

I mean, it’s capital, obviously.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Greta Gerwig; screenplay by Gerwig, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott; director of photography, Yorick Le Saux; edited by Nick Houy; music by Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Jess Gonchor; costume designer, Jacqueline Durran; produced by Amy Pascal, Denise Di Novi, and Robin Swicord; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Saoirse Ronan (Jo March), Emma Watson (Meg March), Florence Pugh (Amy March), Eliza Scanlen (Beth March), Laura Dern (Marmee March), Timothée Chalamet (Laurie), Tracy Letts (Mr. Dashwood), Bob Odenkirk (Father March), James Norton (John Brooke), Louis Garrel (Friedrich Bhaer), Jayne Houdyshell (Hannah), Chris Cooper (Mr. Laurence), and Meryl Streep (Aunt March).


Frances Ha (2012, Noam Baumbach)

Frances Ha relies on exposition but depends on summary. Or it depends on exposition but relies on summary. One or the other. Director and co-writer Baumbach and star and co-writer Greta Gerwig move Frances in the summary. Even when the film slows down for a longer scene, the style and tone don’t really change, so it feels continuous. Time passes–the film takes place over a year or so–but is never particularly defined. Because Gerwig’s Frances doesn’t seem to particularly define time either.

The film’s a fractured character study. Baumbach and Gerwig’s script plays with the narrative distance a lot; they established Gerwig’s character as a somewhat unreliable narrator at the start–using comedic social awkwardness to call into question the degree of the unreliability–but as the film progresses, they further explore that unreliability. The film examines Gerwig, while–for the most part–she’s also the protagonist.

Though it’s not a traditional character study by any means. There’s a decided lack of melodrama, partially because Gerwig and her costars live in a carefree New York City, partially because Frances (film and character) willfully create that carefree New York City. There’s a varying narrative distance to the film’s four locations (New York, Sacramento, Paris, Vassar College) as well, as Gerwig experiences them. As the film moves along, more and more people come into it. Even if they’re background; New York, at the beginning, is entirely focused on Gerwig’s experience of it. In crowded rooms, for instance, the focus is all on Gerwig and the objects of her immediate attention. The film doesn’t show Gerwig around other people. Because she’s living in her head.

The film does have a structure, however. It has chapters with titles. Not the locations but Gerwig’s changing address. The first one doesn’t make much impression, but eventually they become a guide to the film. The narrative distance might be changing, time to adjust your attention. As a director, Baumbach is very intentional. He and cinematographer Sam Levy–shooting in black-and-white–keep a lot out of focus. They let shadows be too dark. They guide the viewer’s eyes, they cause them frustration. But that attention to detail might be surpassed by Jennifer Lame’s transcendent editing. Even when the film is at its most cloying–which isn’t bad, it’s just cute banter comedy, which is cloying for Frances–Lame is able to maintain that summary momentum. Not just the cuts in the actual montage sequences, but the cuts in expository scenes. Lame cuts for actors’ performances, whether they’re in the middle of a monologue or silent in a long shot. It’s a beautifully made film, as well as being utterly gorgeous to watch.

Gerwig’s performance is outstanding. And entirely overshadows the rest of the cast. The inciting action of the film is Gerwig’s best friend and roommate, Mickey Sumner, moving in with someone else. It sets things in motion, the things Gerwig’s aware of and navigating, the things she’s not.

Sumner’s okay. She gets a lot better in the third act, but she’s always okay. Adam Driver and Michael Zegen are Gerwig’s next set of roommates. Driver’s showy, but Zegen’s got a heart of gold. The performances are spot on. No one else really has much to do. Charlotte d’Amboise is the leader of Gerwig’s dance troupe, so she’s got scenes, but they’re all expository. Grace Gummer is another roommate and she’s around for a bit, but she doesn’t get anything significant.

And it’s fine. Because it’s Gerwig’s show. Both as actor and writer, she’s pacing out character development in an almost entirely passive character–in an almost entirely passive film. And she does it. And the filmmaking is there to meet her. Some aspects of Gerwig’s performance work apart from the filmmaking, just as some aspects of the filmmaking work apart from the script. Frances Ha perplexes, but in the best ways.

Truly awesome soundtrack too.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Noah Baumbach; written by Baumbach and Greta Gerwig; director of photography, Sam Levy; edited by Jennifer Lame; production designer, Sam Lisenco; produced by Baumbach, Scott Rudin, and Lila Yacoub; released by IFC Films.

Starring Greta Gerwig (Frances), Mickey Sumner (Sophie), Michael Zegen (Benji), Adam Driver (Lev), Grace Gummer (Rachel), Patrick Heusinger (Patch), and Charlotte d’Amboise (Colleen).


Arthur (2011, Jason Winer)

My Thin Man affection aside, I’m not against sobriety. However, Russell Brand movies integrate the glory of AA to the point it hurts the film (Get Him to the Greek made a similar move at a similar time). The development hurts Arthur, somewhat significantly. It’s good the film has Greta Gerwig, as she pulls it through.

The film is a very pleasant surprise; Brand has shown he can be endearing while still being raucous, but this film is the first I’ve seen where it suggests he might actually be able to act as well. He’s mostly acting opposite Helen Mirren or Gerwig, so he definitely has a lot of support.

The approach helps. Of course it’s nowhere near as good as the original, but it doesn’t compete. Between Brand, Gerwig and Mirren, it engenders a totally different response.

A lot of the film is Mirren’s show—it’s funny because of her responses to Brand. Her career’s gotten so much more interesting as she’s taken these varied roles.

Gerwig’s excellent. Since I’d never seen her before, I was pleasantly surprised, but Arthur has two other big surprises. First, Jennifer Garner’s fantastic. It’s like she was born to play a (realistic) heartless harpy. The other surprise is Nick Nolte (in a small role as Garner’s father). He’s atrocious. I’m not sure they even bothered making sure he was awake.

Winer’s direction is good, very calm and self-aware.

I was hopeful for Arthur, but it’s better than I thought it could be.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jason Winer; written by Peter Baynham, based on the film by Steve Gordon; director of photography, Uta Briesewitz; edited by Brent White; music by Theodore Shapiro; production designer, Sarah Knowles; produced by J.C. Spink, Russell Brand, Larry Brezner, Kevin McCormick, Chris Bender and Michael Tadross; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Russell Brand (Arthur), Helen Mirren (Hobson), Greta Gerwig (Naomi), Jennifer Garner (Susan), Geraldine James (Vivienne), Luis Guzmán (Bitterman) and Nick Nolte (Burt Johnson).


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