Home Video Hovel: Girlfriends, by David Bax
Having now seen Girlfriends, available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, it’s hard to imagine that Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach weren’t fans of Claudia Weill’s spirited and miraculous debut film when they wrote Frances Ha. Both concern a friendship between two young women going through a rough patch–maybe even a break-up. There are many more similarities beside (some of which would constitute spoilers) but the most important one is that both films capture a specific slice of New York City at a specific place and time (even if Girlfriends is the rare NYC movie to completely avoid buses and trains).
Susan (Melanie Mayron) aspires to be a serious photographer but currently makes her living shooting bar mitzvahs and weddings. For her artistic pursuits in her free time, Susan’s favorite subject is her roommate and closest friend, Anne (Anita Skinner). But when Anne gets married and moves out, Susan has to find a way to replace Anne’s now absent suppport, both emotional and financial.
Girlfriends is a film concerned with people, a psychologically driven character piece. That extends beyond just Susan and Anne; everyone from the rabbi who hires Susan for those bill-paying gigs (Eli Wallach) to the rootless drifter who moves in after Anne leaves (Amy Wright) to the male love interests are fully drawn individuals. Yet it’s far from some heavy drama about the human condition. It’s a comedy and its humor also comes from its commitment to its character. This is a movie that’s funny because it’s about people who are funny. Still, Weill does find room for the occasional bit of silliness, like a scene with a gallery owner and her young male assistant who are both inexplicably wearing neck braces.
Given how funny it is, it’s no surprise, then, that Girlfriends features rich early roles in the careers of two actors who would go on to be known for a certain brand of smart comedy. Bob Balaban is Anne’s new husband, a sexy-in-an-intellectual-way type whom Susan can’t help but like despite his being partially responsible for the explosion of her life. And a baby-faced Christopher Guest both tickles and infuriates as Susan’s hipster boyfriend. But I’ve gone too long in this review without singling out the lead performance of Mayron. She’s heartbreaking and vulnerable but also irresistible and magnetic. Like Gerwig’s Frances decades later, Susan is as frustrating as she is lovable.
Criterion’s transfer comes from a 4K scan of the original camera negative. Girlfriends was shot on 16mm film and the texture is well-preserved, grainy but in no way noisy. The soundtrack is in mono.
Special features include a new solo interview with Weill; a new group interview with Weill, Mayron, Guest and Balaban (which includes a great story about the movie’s final shot); a new interview with screenwriter Vicki Polon; a new interview with Weill and Joey Soloway; two short films co-directed by Weill; and essays by Molly Haskell and Carol Gilligan.