Film-makers adore Girlfriends. Lena Dunham chanced upon Claudia Weill’s 1978 debut feature in between directing her own first film, Tiny Furniture, and launching her soon-to-be hit series Girls in 2012. She was so struck by the similarities between her work and this story of a young photographer in New York trying to figure out what she wants from life that she wondered: “Have I seen this and been gently ripping it off for the last five years?” (She invited Weill, then 65, to direct an episode of Girls.)
Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging) called Girlfriends “timeless, incredible”. Wes Anderson, another admirer, read about it in an interview with Stanley Kubrick, who compared it favourably to “the serious, intelligent, sensitive writing and film-making that you find in the best directors in Europe”. Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach recycled its plot, themes and loosey-goosey mood in Frances Ha. If audiences haven’t responded to Girlfriends with the same fervour as directors, that must be because they haven’t seen it yet; the movie, shot on 16mm and paid for entirely with grants, had fallen out of circulation and is only now being re-released in UK cinemas.
It begins in the early-morning half-light to the sounds of distant police sirens and a persistent clicking. Susan (Melanie Mayron) is taking pictures of her roommate Anne (Anita Skinner), who is trying to sleep. “It’s still dark,” she bleats. “No, it’s not,” Susan insists. “The light is fantastic!”
A photo-booth montage of the pair fills in the background of their frolicsome life together, which makes it all the more startling when Anne, a budding poet, announces that she is moving out to marry her boyfriend (Bob Balaban). Susan takes it like a jilting, and later accuses Anne of leaving her. “I didn’t leave, I got married,” she points out, then asks: “Does marriage mean you give up on me?” They spend the rest of the film grappling with that question.
Anne, blonde and perky, would ordinarily occupy centre stage, with Susan consigned to goofy best friend status. But Weill and the screenwriter, Vicki Polon, lavish the limelight on her instead. “It came out of feeling like I didn’t actually see myself or my friends in the movies,” the director said. Weighed down by oversized glasses and unruly curls, Mayron makes Susan often awkward but never ditzy. Her darting wit comes in handy with her portraiture: she knows precisely how to disarm the bar mitzvah boy posing stiffly in front of her, clicking the shutter before he even realises she made him giggle.
The editing (by Suzanne Pettit) is so fleet-footed, and the scenes staged so economically by Weill and her cinematographer Fred Murphy, that it sometimes feels as though we’re leafing through a pile of New Yorker cartoons. Showing her hairdresser a photograph of the cut she wants, Susan is told that it wouldn’t suit the shape of her face. Her response is as funny as it is plaintive: “Will anything?”
Elsewhere, the framing itself creates the joke, such as when she walks in on her temporary house guest exercising. The woman’s legs move rhythmically in front of Susan’s face like the hands on a giant clock. Perhaps it’s counting down to oblivion: “I’m going to be old before I get what I want,” Susan frets, “and by then I’ll have forgotten what it was.”
The weight and emphasis reserved in most films for romance is diverted here towards friendship. There is still some will-they-won’t-they tension, though it pertains to whether Susan and Anne can learn to develop independently of one another while maintaining a relationship that fulfils both their needs. Their
connection may be platonic, but Girlfriends is still as much of a love story as other Jewish New York gems such as Annie Hall and Crossing Delancey.
Relationships with men are nudged to the periphery, where they shimmer with loving detail. When Susan and the 60-something Rabbi Gold (Eli Wallach, best known as the “ugly” element in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) goof around after a bar mitzvah, he mimes passing her a cigarette, which she pretends to smoke doobie-style. Saying goodbye, they fall into a sudden kiss. Their rapport has been built up so patiently that the clinch feels neither creepy nor catastrophic, though she is very young and he is extremely married. In the afterglow, he asks when he can see her again. “I have to bring you the Bermanns’ contact sheet,” she grins.
Far closer to Susan’s age is Eric, played by another familiar face: Christopher Guest, who at this point was still six years away from fame as Nigel Tufnel, proud owner of the amps that go up to 11 in This Is Spinal Tap. Susan wonders if she will eventually want children with Eric. It’s that thought that prompts her to ask him in bed one morning whether he has ever had mumps, which can cause infertility in adults. He phones his mother immediately to find out. With that settled, the couple chase one another naked across the room, then pause together in the window’s fuzzy glow. Susan was right. The light is fantastic.
“Girlfriends” is in cinemas from 23 July
dir: Claudia Weill
This article appears in the 21 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Chinese century