Claudia Weill’s insouciant New York comedy from 1978 is now rereleased: a little indie gem and lo-fi miracle whose emotional force catches you glancingly. Girlfriends now looks like a pop-cultural ancestor to any number of romcoms, as well as to Single White Female, TV’s thirtysomething (in which Melanie Mayron also starred) and Sex and the City, e Emma Seligman’s recent movie Shiva Baby.
Mayron stars as aspiring young photographer Suzie Weinblatt, an unassuming mix of Annie Hall and Alvy Singer. Suzie has to deal with a restless singleton life after her best friend and roommate Anne (Anita Skinner) moves out to get married to a supercilious guy called Martin (Bob Balaban) that Suzie doesn’t like very much, perhaps for boring her with his slides from the couple’s vacation in Morocco and the ill-fitting top he and Anne bought for her there and embarrassingly made her wear. (“When we go to Italy we’re going to write down everyone’s size!” he trills.)
It isn’t simply that Suzie now has to cover the rest of the rent; she is also quietly devastated at the loss of an intimate friend, which is worse than a romantic breakup. She has no language with which to explain her emotions to herself or even, in a way, to grieve. Because friends – that is, straight “girlfriends”, to use a word that has gone out of style since 1978 – are at the centre of the movie. Now she has to throw herself into her professional life, taking pictures at barmitzvahs and weddings to pay the bills while also nursing a serious artistic ambition, and trudging around Manhattan to show her portfolio to magazine picture editors and gallery directors. She makes new girlfriends: a clingy new roommate, Ceil (Amy Wright), who is attracted to Suzie, and rival photographer Julie (Gina Rogak). She also starts dating a man: the preening, demanding Eric (played by a pre-Tap Christopher Guest).
But the most important man in her life is rabbi Aaron Gold, tenderly played by Eli Wallach, who appears to be getting Suzie these barmitzvah gigs. Suzie and the rabbi are clearly close and in one scene they are shown playing chess; Weill almost lets us assume they are father and daughter. But no; the rabbi is a married man with a son, and he has a serious and tragic crush on Suzie, kissing her and asking her to lunch. Of course, this is to end in someone getting hurt. There is something exquisitely sad in the rabbi showing up to Suzie’s first exhibition and realising that there is nothing there for him but to offer his fatherly or even grandfatherly congratulations and then leave, almost unnoticed.
Finally there is the relationship of Suzie and Anne itself, which arrives at a kind of reckoning. Something very traumatic has happened in Anne’s life, and Suzie is moved to realise that Anne is confiding in her, rather than her husband, whose existence she can’t help resenting. But there is still an unbridgeable gulf between them: they have grown apart and there is nothing to be done. Girlfriends is a stylish movie about love and the city.
Girlfriends is released on 23 July in cinemas.