Greta Gerwig is radiant as Frances, a woman in her late twenties in contemporary New York trying to sort out her ambitions, her finances, and, above all, her intimate but shifting bond with her best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Meticulously directed by Noah Baumbach with a free-and-easy vibe reminiscent of the French New Wave’s most spirited films, and written by Baumbach and Gerwig with an effortless combination of sweetness and wit, Frances Ha gets at both the frustrations and the joys of being young and unsure of where to go next. This wry and sparkling city romance is a testament to the ongoing vitality of independent American cinema.
The Criterion Collection presents Noah Baumbach’s recent film Frances Ha on both Blu-ray and DVD, delivering the film in its original aspect ratio of about 1.85:1 on dual-layer discs. The Blu-ray presents the film with a 1080p/24hz high-definition transfer. The DVD is enhanced for widescreen televisions.
I have to give credit to Frances Ha’s black and white photography: The film was shot using a Canon 5D camera and then altered to Black and White in post production, and despite this it delivers some impressive tonal range and there are many moments where one could mistakenly think it was shot on film. But we are quickly reminded we are not watching film in other shots where the weaknesses of the equipment shows through. Artifacts are problematic and show up in a wide variety of ways. Darker sequences show noise littered throughout and finely detail objects like zippers on jackets cause shimmering effects. I doubt this is an issue with the transfer and this is all probably exactly as it is on the master.
Other aspects of the presentation are pretty great, though. For something that was converted to black and white after the fact it really looks stunning. Gray levels and contrast are excellent, and blacks are generally pretty strong (details can get lost in darker sequences but again I blame this more on the technology used to shoot the film.) The image is crisp, delivering a high amount of detail, edges are smooth and there are no cases of halos or any sort of edge-enhancement.
Since this comes from a digital source there is nothing in the way of print damage. The DVD version presents a similar transfer, though admittedly comes off a bit softer. Some of the digital artifacts noticeable on the Blu-ray aren’t as obvious on the DVD oddly, but shimmering can be more of a problem. Halos are also more visible on bright objects against dark backgrounds. Otherwise the transfers obviously come from the same master.
As a whole the transfer looks about as good as it probably can, limited primarily by technology. Still, I have to give credit to Baumbach and cinematographer Sam Levy for managing to create a very film-like look.
Both the DVD and Blu-ray present 5.1 surround tracks, in DTS-HD MA on the Blu-ray and in Dolby Digital on the DVD. It’s not the most dynamic film, more monaural in nature, but it has its moments. Dialogue and most sound effects are limited to the front center channel where it is clear and easy to hear. Music makes its ways to the surrounds, as does some of the ambient noise in sequences where large crowds are gathered, but it barely registers in all honesty. Bass is subtle but effective.
Volume levels are fine and there’s no sign of distortion or damage. It doesn’t aim for much but it works for the film.
Criterion includes a few features giving the film a modest but not overly impressive special edition. Up first is a discussion between Peter Bogdanovich and Noah Baumbach. Running a scant 15-minutes it has Baumbach cover the origins of the project and how he went about working on it with star Greta Gerwig through e-mail. Baumbach also comments on the difficulty of doing black and white with digital and the process of converting it afterwards (he mentions how he even tried not to see the film in colour, so would watch it through a black and white monitor while filming.) He also quickly covers the film’s music, the other performers in the film, and specific moments. Bogdanovich also manages to, again, throw Orson Welles into the conversation, but does offer his own compliments on the film. It’s a decent conversation, though not as in-depth as I would have hoped. Baumbach doesn’t really talk about influences which I was most interested in.
A little better is a 17-minute conversation between Sarah Polley and Greta Gerwig. Polley first talks about her initial joy in watching the film, and then asks Gerwig a number of questions. The two talk about Greta’s performance and the collaboration between here and Baumbach. She also gets into a little bit of detail about the number of takes that would be taken for specific scenes. The last little bit is devoted more to the character and learning dance moves. Gerwig seems a little flustered at moments, possibly nervous, but is no less charming.
The most disappointing feature may be the last one, which focuses on the cinematography. Interpreting Reality is an 18-minute discussion between Baumbach, director of photography Sam Levy, and colourist Pascal Dangin on shooting in digital and manipulating the image to black and white afterwards on a computer. The late Harry Savides provided guidance on this process and the three recall this, while also talking about the actual testing and process. We get a few before-and-after shots and some interesting technical information, as well as test footage, but I still felt underwhelmed. I was rather impressed with how well the photography came out and I guess I was hoping for something along the lines of what Criterion delivered on their Traffic release, which got into fine detail on how Soderbergh got the look of his film.
A trailer then closes off the disc.
Criterion provides a booklet with a decent essay by playwright Annie Baker on the film and its charms. Overall it’s an OK selection of supplements but I was disappointed by the lack of critical examination, which Criterion even managed to put on their release of Tiny Furniture.
Supplements do disappoint but it’s a fine release with as decent a transfer as one can probably expect.