The OVERLOOK SCREENING ROOM is a monthly film event, dedicated to discovering and showcasing cinema's best kept secrets. The clue is in the film club's title: the idea is to give overlooked films their due. Given the longstanding discrepancy in terms of numbers and work offered when it comes to male versus female roles behind the camera (not to mention portrayals of women in front of it) you could argue all female directors in mainstream western cinema are in a sense 'overlooked'. Reports on gender/sex equality today continue to present a dim picture. But that just makes American director Claudia Weill's 1978 female-led drama, Girlfriends, which the Overlook screened this week, all the more impressive. Nearly 40 years on and this film still presents a more realistic, funny and complex portrayal of slightly messed-up female relations than much of what you'll see today at the multiplex. Its like watching an early version of Frances Ha.
The feature debut of Claudia Weill (which she wrote along with Vicky Polon), Girlfriends is a comedy-drama that charts the friendship between aspiring New York photographer Susan (Melanie Mayron) and her roommate and best friend Anne (Anita Skinner), with a story largely told through vignettes that cover several years, with often big jumps in between each section. It's more Susan than Anne's story, and we watch her deal with the struggles to find work in a city not short of photographers, her weird attraction to her 60-something married Rabbi (veteran actors Eli Wallach), her burgeoning relationship with her asshole boyfriend Eric (a very young Christopher Guest pre-Spinal Tap), and, above all, her major problem coping with the loss of her closest friend in a marriage to a guy she dismisses (with a little bit of hypocrisy) as a dilettante.
The characters are all treated sympathetically and given enough dimensions to stand out; whether male or female no one is stereotyped or one-note, even the ridiculously self-obsessed Eric or the other minor characters who pass through Susan's life. The film passes the Bechdel test comfortably too, with actresses Melanie Mayron and Anita Skinner totally convincing as long-time friends struggling to come to terms with changing circumstances, who have nevertheless developed their own rhythms of living together and riffing off each other, though that makes their inevitable growing up and apart harder. Susan's irrational upset at the loss of her friend, her stubborn refusal to give up her crappy overpriced rental apartment, her veering about from wanting one-night stands at parties to just wanting to push the world out and live alone, all of this human ping-pong is totally relatable and, crucially, never sneered at by the film's tone or script. Apart from all these rich character dynamics and a few moments of gentle humour to break things up, you can also enjoy this film as a snapshot of a grubbier 1970s New York before Disneyfication set in.
This independent film has been championed by notable film figures including Stanley Kubrick, but has yet to receive a DVD or Blu-ray release in the UK. Track down a screening of it if you can. As for Weill, sadly she never seemed able to capitalise on its success, working mostly in TV after. But is it tempting to see today's successes like HBO's Girls as the spiritual offspring of her great film.