"More of Your Time": Friendship and Loss in Claudia Weill's Girlfriends
In the year of Booksmart and Late Night, pictures of female friendship have come to the fore. But the blueprints were conceived decades ago, when Claudia Weill gave the world Girlfriends. Katie Da Cunha Lewin looks back on a classic and sees how the legacy remains.
In recent years, the appetite in Hollywood for films about female friendship has increased. In the ‘00s we had the buddy film, or the ‘bromance’, with titles including Step-Brothers in 2008 or I Love You, Man in 2009, which sought to find more emotional notes about hetereosexual male friendships in otherwise silly comedies, but a number of releases since 2010s, such as Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2012), Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2017) and Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart (2019) focus on the difficulties of female friendships. Claudia Weill’s 1978 film Girlfriends can be seen as the orginiary text for these releases, giving as it does a perceptive insight into the problems of growing up and apart. The dialogue is understated and naturalistic, and the performances, particularly from Melanie Mayron in the lead role of Susan, are gentle and unfussy. Though the supporting male actors, Bob Balaban and Christopher Guest, would go on to have acting careers that now make them more immediately recognisable, Weill’s direction means that the two women, Anne (played by Anita Skinner) and Susan offer the definitive focus of the film.
The plot is simple: two young women live together in an apartment in New York. Anne announces that she is getting married to her boyfriend Martin (Bob Balaban), leaving Susan to move into the new, larger apartment on her own, one they were supposed to share. Though Susan finds living without Anne difficult, in this unfamiliar solitude she finds success in her career as a photographer and settles into the new shape of her life. This separation however changes the dynamics of their relationship, and Susan and Anne fall out of step: though they reunite briefly at the end of the film, Weill’s simple ending - the voice of the husband calling from another room - signals this split. Whilst not a bleak film by any stretch, Girlfriends shows Weill to be frank in her treatment of the effects of hetereosexual romance on same-sex friendships. This can be a subject often dealt with squeamishly, as it seems almost a given that friendships should naturally give way to romantic relationships, but in Girlfriends Weill delicately traces the loss of that intimacy.
In a Criterion Collection interview, Weill talks about her desire to make the character that would normally be, as she put it, the ‘side-kick’ – the one who was perhaps not conventionally attractive or, in some way ‘ethnic, maybe Jewish’ – the protagonist. For Weill, these women were not living perfect lives, but had to make some kind of life still worth living for themselves. As film scholar Lucy Fischer notes on Girlfriends, Weill’s desire to resituate the focus of her film away from a certain kind of Hollywood protagonist means that here is no voyeur position from which the audience looks at two women characters: the women remain outside the male gaze. This repositioning may have a lot to do with the film’s production process: written, edited, directed and starring mostly women, Girlfriends still seems somewhat radical today, particularly when recent figures from research undertaken the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film for 2018-9 show that women make up just ‘31% of all creators, directors, writers, executive producers, producers, editors, and directors of photography’ in television, and 33% of directors in independent film.
Weill started out filming and directing documentary, often focusing on women’s lives, and shooting in a cinema vérité style. Her early works include the shorts This Is The Home of Mrs Levant Graham in 1971 and Joyce at 34 in 1973, both looking at family life. In 1975 she co-directed The Other Half of the Sky: A China Memoir with Shirley MacLaine. MacLaine, by this point a Hollywood stalwart, was invited by the Chinese government to bring a group of American women to tour the country as a means of forging a new dialogue across continents and giving an American audience an insight into a China that was not channelled through ideological propaganda. Weill accompanied the cohort on their two-month trip, filming a travelogue on 16mm.
The filmmaker brings something of this vérité sensibility to Girlfriends, through the casual settings in intimate domestic spaces: much of the film takes place in apartments or cramped rooms, so that conversations are always contained. The conversations themselves are mundane, sometimes repetitive, and Weill fixates on small details, such as exchanges between Anne and Susan on the colour of their walls, anecdotes about a grandfather’s religion, nicknames, and childhood diseases. As her documentary work attests, Weill approaches her subject without a judgemental eye, instead allowing the complex emotions of the characters to slowly build through the course of the film.
Weill also brings this attention to something that otherwise may be taken for granted. It’s not just the intricacies of a friendship, but the emotional fallout from life events. In one scene, not long after Anne leaves, Susan walks around her new apartment, the one they were supposed to share, looking dejectedly at her still unpacked boxes and screams ‘I hate it!’. In a later scene, she joins Anne and Martin for dinner and sits quietly, watching as the couple use new gadgets, pour exotic coffees, and show pictures from their travels, displaying the accessories that come with married life.
When Susan starts seeing a young man named Eric (Christopher Guest) later in the film, she explains her initial reticence to start dating by saying, ‘I was coming out of a heavy relationship’. This ‘heavy relationship’ is, of course, with Anne – but it’s crucial that Susan gives the same importance to her friendship as if it had been a romantic partner. We may talk off-handedly about the loneliness that comes from the end of a platonic relationship, but Weill demonstrates the hurt that comes from this kind of loss is far more multifaceted than we may allow. In her explanation, then, Susan demonstrates her realisation that she has to ‘get over’ Anne too, and that new intimacies cannot plaster over the holes left by old ones.
This focus on the loss of intimate friendship is tempered by the concealed time of the film: in its opening shots, Susan takes pictures of a sleeping Anne; by the end of the film, Anne’s child is over a year old and she has just chosen to abort her second pregnancy, whilst Susan is now serious with her boyfriend and has had her first gallery exhibition. The exact time over which the film has taken place is unclear, but each scene reveals its accumulation of time through mise-en-scène and details of conversation. In the first minutes of the film, almost every scene sees Anne making a new announcement: her love for her new boyfriend, her engagement, and then her pregnancy. We don’t really see what’s it like to live these events – Weill only ever portrays her family life very briefly – but instead we hear Anne relay them as news to her friend.
These conversations often take place in in-between spaces, such as in a hallway or in a laundromat, so that these profound announcements feel markedly ephemeral. Throughout the film, Anne seems to be swept up in her relationship, her marriage, her new adventures in writing and then her baby, until the very end when she is suddenly overwhelmed and runs away, albeit to her house upstate. Though in many way Anne is following the well-worn path of heterosexual coupling, Weill is careful to show that this path too is distressing and that, as with Susan, one relationship cannot easily replace another. Weill’s film explores both perspectives of each young woman without condemning either side; it’s perfectly natural that Anne would in some way disappear into her new marriage and new life, but it also makes sense that, after living together so closely, Susan feels lonely and a little betrayed.
In this way, the film tracks the process by which we fall out of step with someone with whom we once shared an intimate friendship; though the two narratives of Anne and Susan intercut, they become increasingly separated from one another. In one scene Anne complains that Susan is always out when she rings; in another Susan confesses simply that she wanted more time with Anne. Weill gives space to explore the way female friendships work as one gets older, and how talking about our lives becomes a constant struggle of trying to ‘catch up’. Though she allows Anne and Susan a moment of reconnection towards the end of Girlfriends, there is no final emotional reunion: it is simply that too much has changed, both in their own lives and in their friendship. Weill’s gentle film gives an original insight into a problem without resolution.
Katie Da Cunha Lewin (@kdc_lewin) is a writer and tutor based in London. She has a PhD in literature and is the co-editor of Don DeLillo: Contemporary Critical Perspectives published by Bloomsbury in 2018. Her writing has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The White Review, The London Magazine and Los Angeles Review of Books among others. She has taught literature, film and theory at a variety of institutions.