Girlfriends – review


Girlfriends (1978, dir. Claudia Weill)

#52FILMSBYWOMEN is a campaign launched by Women In Film in an attempt to raise awareness of female filmmakers. Their initiative asks cinephiles to watch a female-directed film once a week for an entire year, and in this series I will document the films I watched as a part of this pledge.

Having now watched Girlfriends by Claudia Weill, I’m slightly surprised so few critics mentioned the film when reviewing Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha or even Mistress America. Perhaps it has been forgotten in the intervening years – destined to be another gem lost in the ether of obscurity. Or maybe it was just ahead of its time, and now, with the rise of mumblecore and the popularity of shows such as Lena Dunham’s Girls, it’s finally ready to blossom and cement its place as one of the great cinematic depictions of female friendship.

Set in New York City (of course, where else?), this whimsical comedy-drama follows Susan (Melanie Mayron), a bespectacled woman in her twenties, who has ambitions to become a high-end photographer. She shares a close symbiotic relationship with her roommate Anne (Anita Skinner), a budding writer and her best friend of many years; but their special kinship hits a snag when Anne unexpectedly announces she’s moving out to marry her boyfriend Martin (Bob Balaban). This sudden change brings inescapable turmoil to Susan as she struggles to adapt to her new life without her bestie. She struggles to find work. She struggles with her romantic relationships. And perhaps most devastatingly, she struggles to reignite her friendship with Anne.

A common criticism aimed at a lot of recent comedies about aspiring artists set in Manhattan is that the characters can come across as narcissistic, patronising, too smart for their own good. The same accusation cannot be said for Girlfriends. Though Susan is intelligent and has a natural wit, her conversations aren’t filled with smart aleck pontificating. When she meets a potential suitor in Eric (Christopher Guest), their dialogue is awkward and stunted. It’s charming, without being overtly sharp or witty. It’s naturalistic, without being self-conscious. That’s not to say that the character isn’t self-absorbed, because she is, but she’s plainer, more vulnerable, and in that sense, more relatable than many of the modern equivalents.

Weill’s film career sadly didn’t take off after this. She directed a few made-for-TV movies and a few episodes for television (including an episode for Girls), but, even despite of the apparent interest from Stanley Kubrick, she never made another significant feature-length again. Who knows what she could’ve become if things fell in a different direction? Perhaps she could’ve been an American counterpart to Éric Rohmer, or perhaps she could’ve built a career as expansive as Woody Allen. It’s a shame there isn’t more to her name, but even with just this one credit, she’s managed to influence an entire film movement – how many other filmmakers can say that?

Rating: ★★★★☆



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