Greta Gerwig: A Connoisseur of Female Characterisation

Sarah Saraj, 2nd year BASc Arts and Sciences student at UCL, looks back at Greta Gerwig's career and the formation of a unique, authentic and distinctly female voice in film. 

Frances: 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 - but not because you're possessive, or it's precisely sexual... but because... that is your person in this life. That’s - That's what I want out of a relationship. Or just life, I guess.

I was first introduced to Greta Gerwig by the 2012 film, Frances Ha. She was captivating. Directed by Noah Baumbach, Gerwig’s longtime collaborator and co-writer, Frances Ha’s protagonist was off-kilter and uncouth, her sincere naivety, earnestness and radical vulnerability caught my eye from across the room and I knew there and then that it was love. Frances is a very particular type of female character, who I now know to be a product of Gerwig’s writing and acting, inseparable from Gerwig herself. 

Greta Gerwig in  Frances Ha  (2012)

Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha (2012)

Co-written by Gerwig, Frances Ha tells a tragic love story of platonic heartbreak. Frances’ best friend, Sophie, is moving on with her life, and is doing so without Frances. They are going through a breakup and, like any breakup, it comes with a fair amount of emotional turmoil. A dancer who isn’t dancing, Frances is unable to get a job, find a place to live, or reach creative fulfilment, and so this separation also acts as a metaphor for the lack of control she has in other aspects of her life. Frances spends most of the film floundering - after all, she has been abandoned. Her attempts to reclaim her life take the form of a desolate tour: back home to Sacramento and then to Paris on an unremarkable trip that leaves her underwhelmed and penniless. This character is a gift, offering an authentic insight into female self-destruction and the complexities of female friendship, a topic too often neglected in cinema.

After watching Frances Ha, I found myself eagerly digging into Gerwig’s filmography for more and was rewarded by her representations of women - deep women - who refuse to be rendered a muse or used as a plot device. We can see the formation of this spirit in Gerwig’s early work as part of the mumblecore movement, when her collaborations with Joe Swanberg on low-budget films such as Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) and Nights and Weekends (2008) made her the poster girl for American indie film.

Mumblecore is often scrutinised for its self-indulgent depiction of disillusioned millennials, but the movement’s stripped-down nature brings the emotional resonance of Gerwig’s performances to the fore. In Hannah Takes the Stairs she plays Hannah, an elusive and directionless twentysomething who thoughtlessly jumps from one unfulfilling love-interest to another. Hannah could be consigned to the manic-pixie-dream-girl trope, however Gerwig’s sympathetic take on what might otherwise be a conventional character is refreshing and unique. Beneath Hannah’s initial lack of depth lies a palpable dissatisfaction. Even at this early stage in her career, we can see Gerwig grappling for more agency and autonomy over her roles. Her participation in these films was vital to the development of her voice as a filmmaker, with the movement’s commitment to a realist aesthetic allowing her to explore an innate flare for depicting naturalism, stutters and all.

Greta Gerwig in  Hannah Takes the Stairs  (2007)

Greta Gerwig in Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007)

Writing credit or not, Gerwig has maintained a remarkable level of control over her on-screen characterisation, as demonstrated in Maggie’s Plan (2015), written by Karen Rinaldi and directed by Rebecca Miller. By this point, Gerwig had honed her ability to create a character that is uniquely her own. Gerwig stars alongside Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore as Maggie Hardin, a woman whose greatest wish is to be a mother. In our current cultural climate that champions female achievement outside the home, it seems revolutionary to see female in the home depicted as a self-affirming and empowering choice. Maggie is a subversive response to the trend in recent films to limit female power to unrealistic SFCs (Strong Female Characters). Taking on the role of a mother is new realm for Gerwig; for the first time we see her playing a parallel to her previous characters: a few years on and able to take control of her life.

Maggie’s Plan uses countless overwrought tropes for the goal of completely subverting them. Seemingly following in the footsteps of a Woody Allen-esque structure, the film centres on Maggie, a vivacious student who falls in love with and is impregnated by older academic John Harding (Hawke). However, the story goes beyond the deeply problematic ending of Manhattan (thank God). Three years go by and Maggie finds her ambitions squandered for John’s writing career. The reality of the ageing writer-trope leaves Maggie sorely dissatisfied. Enter: John’s ex-wife, Georgette (Julianne Moore), another hilarious female stereotype and parody - the cold, autonomous ex-wife/artist. Gerwig and Moore take on two female characters who transgress their roles as cinematic plot-devices.

Greta Gerwig in  Maggie's Plan  (2015)

Greta Gerwig in Maggie's Plan (2015)

Lady Bird (2017), Gerwig's solo director debut, is the culmination of her experience and decade long efforts to represent realistic females on film. Set in Gerwig's home town of Sacramento, the film follows the plight of a teenager, Lady Bird, desperate and hungry to escape the monotony of suburbia for New York City. Gerwig’s trademark depiction of female earnestness and naivety is perfectly realised by Ronan in the titular role. Lady Bird is passionate, Lady Bird is alive. In the first five minutes of the film, she jumps out of a moving car with the swiftness and surety of a headstrong fool. Lacking an appropriate outlet for her energy, she is erratically charismatic, kind of like a female version of Max Fischer in Rushmore. She is hungry for life and desperate for experience. She spends the majority of the film trying: trying to get the lead in the school musical, trying to make friends with the in-crowd, trying to move to New York through college applications. The film explores female friendship, restlessness, ambition and the subtleties of class divide, and it has won Gerwig an Oscar nomination making her the fifth woman ever to make the Best Director shortlist.

Saoirse Ronan in  Lady Bird  (2017)

Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird (2017)

Some have dismissed Gerwig as the Trilby to Baumbach’s Svengali. However, her success in recreating the sensibility of her past characters to an even more potent effect in her directorial debut, which she also wrote, proves that this style is uniquely and simply Gerwig. This is not to say that her characters are all alike, but that they share something real and deep that is largely absent from the way women tend to be represented in cinema.

Having blazed a successful path, Gerwig now establishes herself as a formidable talent on all fronts. Her writing, directing and personality has introduced a new kind of honesty and naturalism to mainstream cinema. Rather than leaving a shadow behind her that others must overcome, Gerwig has become the kind of powerhouse that can set a good example for burgeoning creatives like Frances. With Gerwig at the helm, the future for female representation looks promising.

[Sarah Saraj, 2nd year BASc Arts and Sciences at UCL]

With thanks to the UCL Film & TV Society. Follow them on twitter, facebook and instagram.

Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird is playing at Curzon Cinemas from 16th February 2018. 

Ryan Hewitt