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Girlfriends review – feminist classic feels just as fresh in 2021

Intimate, poignant and funny in equal measure, Claudia Weill’s celebrated 1978 indie finally gets a chance to shine on the big screen

Scarcely accessible to UK audiences bar its recent Criterion Blu-ray, 1978’s Girlfriends gets a long overdue theatrical release this week. Even 43 years on, Claudia Weill’s groundbreaking portrait of mid-twenties milieu is as fresh and potent as ever. Susan (Melanie Mayron) is a photographer living in New York with her best friend, aspiring poet Anne (Anita Skinner). But when Anne abruptly marries and moves out, Susan is suddenly faced with unfamiliar loneliness, the security of sisterhood disappearing in the supposed prime of her life.

Susan and Anne are both women inherently tied to their artistic pursuits, attempting to sew the fabric of their very selves into the art they produce. Anne writes about her fraught relationship with her mother and Susan wishes to exercise her artistic eye beyond wedding and bar mitzvah photography (while also managing to keep the bills paid). Peripheral male characters (among them Eli Wallach, Christopher Guest and Bob Balaban) repeatedly belittle the work of these silly little women making their silly little art; Susan is condescendingly praised for her vision by male gallerists, yet she struggles to make steady sales.

Both creatives suffer through the overwhelming ordeal of trying to create something of meaning. As for most twenty-somethings, the struggle to find a sense of purpose and to leave some sort of mark – proof of your mere existence – is palpable (perhaps painfully so). Bound together by their frustrations, it's no wonder that Susan feels betrayed when Anne announces she’s getting married. For Susan, weddings are tied to work, and therefore her lack of creative freedom. With Anne’s departure comes a crushing loss for Susan, and she is forced to navigate the professional and domestic spaces she inhabits alone.

Girlfriends isn’t heavy with plot. Instead, it’s made up of casual vignettes that are more focussed on the power of pure emotion, dialogue and relationships. Often cited as the blueprint for Noah Baumbach’s acclaimed comedy-drama Frances Ha, it offers a raw and authentic depiction of young women in a world that refuses to take anything they do seriously – an idea that mirrors the making of the film itself, in which Weill faced continuous production and financial interruptions (such is the life of a female director).

Girlfriends is a candid study of women trying to navigate the boundaries of newfound liberation, and rediscovering what their roles are in a predominantly patriarchal society. Ultimately, the film advocates for all facets of the “modern” woman by having Susan and Anne express jealously over each others’ lives; Anne wishes for independence, but Susan envies the security of Anne’s marriage. Neither woman’s decisions are shown to be wrong, attesting to the complexity of female existence. Narratively and visually, the film allows these women to be in control. They assertively navigate the frame, camera working around them as they own the physical space by moving as they please, unconcerned for the film’s line of vision. Incontestable in Girlfriends is the importance of choice.

Weill’s film is fittingly radical in the context of second-wave feminism, encompassing themes of women’s liberation, abortion, and a sprinkle of queer subtext (very much a staple of contemporary readings of the film). Viewed in the present day, Girlfriends feels at once so audaciously of its time and yet so unmistakably modern. As a source for the creative, it's undeniably comforting, assuring that to be by oneself does not mean to be alone, nor that tying yourself down means sacrificing your independence and integrity.

Girlfriends is re-released in select UK cinemas from 23 July.

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