Whereas Frances Ha (2012) channeled the spirit of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) Noah Baumbach’s latest film, Mistress America, continues Baumbach’s style of working off the French New Wave, specifically Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960). With Breathless, Godard played with the rhythm of the film by way of dialogue and most notoriously, jump-cuts. There, dialogue was rapid and held a stinging wit, thus reflecting the film’s spontaneous and improvised style. The jump-cuts reinforced this by defining the film’s signature style but most importantly, the jump-cuts showed Godard’s play with time; the editing gave Breathless an element of self-reflexivity, appropriate for a film about about the nature of film.
Mistress America too uses dialogue to reinforce an improvised style and while Baumbach doesn’t use jump-cuts, there’s also a defiance against time by way of montage. Events in the film are barreled through as quickly as possible, and the result is that there’s a bigger importance placed on the effects of their happening rather than the event itself. If it wasn’t for that latter aspect of the script, I might have dismissed Mistress America as being underdeveloped, but the rushed style of directing here becomes reflective of that low-budget spontaneity that the film was made in. Furthermore, Mistress America too is also about the style of creating art on the fly.
The story is about Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke), an eighteen year old in her first semester of college. She aspires to be a short-story writer but finds herself in a slump after being rejected from the college’s elite literary group. Meanwhile, her mother is soon to be re-married and on her advice, Tracy decides to contact her future sister-in-law, Brooke Cardinas (Greta Gerwig).
It turns out that Brooke is a whirlpool of a personality, and the much younger and impressionable Tracy is consequently swept in her energy. That same energy turns into creative inspiration, and Tracy begins to write a short story based on Brooke.
Gerwig as Brooke nearly carries the film with her acting. Just as Brooke is popular within the world of the film, Gerwig too is the center of the attention when she’s in the frame thanks to her delivery of the rapid-fire dialogue. In her delivery, Gerwig is charismatic and confident and is continuously moving on and thinking of ideas. The conversations between her and Tracy begin to branch out until three different topics are being discussed in tandem. It’s the juggling of dialogue that first prompted me to make the connection to Breathless. In that film, Michel and Patricia would also speak to one another without seemingly really holding one conversation but merely airing their thoughts out loud.
In Mistress America, it’s the airing of those thoughts within the dialogue that reveal Brooke’s inner-being and in turn is made into art by Tracy. That art, however, comes at a cost of personal sacrifice; Tracy keeps the story a secret and when Brooke discovers it, the consequences threaten to shatter the very same relationship which birthed the story. Here I’d like to draw a connection to Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Phillip (2015), another film which explores the risk and consequence of great art in relation to social ties. Tracy takes on the role of Phillip in this film, but the key difference between Tracy and Phillip and perhaps the difference in thought between Baumbach and Perry, is that Tracy keeps both her art and her friends, whereas Phillip is forced between one and the other.
As stated earlier, Baumbach also plays with time in Mistress America by way of montage. What the use of montage allows Baumbach to do is that the script and by extension Tracy, begin to work with only the essentials of the story. The technique allows Baumbach to save money on filming but more importantly, the audience begins to grasp how Mistress America is a film about capturing the ideas of who people are. For Tracy and the audience, it’s more important to see through montage that Brooke is a party girl, entrepreneur, and so on, because that is the essence of her being–the stuff of art and so for this reason I’d argue against Mistress America as simply lolling through events.
I’d also like to touch upon one of the effects of the montage and dialogue: the events of Brooke’s life, her personality, and her absorption of Tracy who begins to mimic her, make Brooke and by extension Tracy an unlikeable person. Brooke is exemplary of a spoiled millenial who is unaware of what responsibility is and rather burdens those around her with an air of obliviousness. The use of montage then reinforces this, because it sets out to make the life of Brooke appear wonderfully hip. Like Brooke, Mistress America appears to be self-indulgent of its characters and it becomes easy to dislike the film. I’d argue, however, that there’s a danger in dismissing the film in this manner.
I’d first to like to ask, does a movie need characters who are likeable in order to be considered good? By this I mean, if a characters beliefs or attitudes do not line up with our own, should the movie be dismissed? This was how I initially felt about Mistress America; I could not stand how self-absorbed the characters were and how the montage seemingly reinforced their own ideals. In short, I wished for Brooke and Tracy to earn their commupance and mature.
That commupance does happen, and so I think there’s a small bit of Mistress America that is also about the desires of the audience. When it turns that not everything in Brooke’s life was going to be perfect, I did not feel a sense of joy from seeing someone who I thought to be an asshole, feel miserable. Rather, I felt a sense of pity.
There’s a lesson to be learned from the characters that I think Baumbach and Gerwig who co-wrote the script, embed thematically into the film. Those without patience will dismiss the film as perhaps being pretentious and glamorous, but I ask that they see it in a different light; I don’t think by the end, the film is as self-absorbed as it seems to be.