Birds Eye View 2014: seven female friendships on film

A favourite of both Stanley Kubrick and Lena Dunham, Girlfriends is a forgotten classic of US indie cinema. As it gets a rare screening during this year’s Birds Eye View Festival, we look at seven other memorable depictions of female friendship in films either written or directed by women.

Jemma Desai
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Girlfriends (1978)

Girlfriends (1978)

On 13 April, Girlfriends, a truly forgotten gem of American indie cinema will return to the big screen for the first time in the UK since its release in 1978. The screening is curated by I am Dora, a curatorial initiative that explores how women relate to each other through the medium of film, and is showing as part of Birds Eye View Film Festival, which celebrates women filmmakers.

Girlfriends, directed by a 27-year-old Claudia Weill, was part of a cycle of female friendship films that flourished in the late 70s and 80s. Films like Julia (1977), The Turning Point (1977) and Rich and Famous (1981), among others, showcased female dynamics with varying degrees of verisimilitude and progressivism. Unlike most of the films in that cycle, Girlfriends was written and produced by a woman completely independent of studio input.

Extract from Girlfriends (1978). Courtesy of Park Circus/Warner Bros.

A favourite of Stanley Kubrick’s, who praised its sincerity and believable characterisation, the film was recently rediscovered when it was included in Lena Dunham’s selection of films exploring female friendship at BAM, New York, in 2011.

Poignant and funny, Girlfriends explores the confusion and co-dependence of female friendships between single women living in the city, long before Girls (2012-) and Frances Ha (2012) made this a phenomenon.

To mark the screening we’ve put together a selection of female friendship films, some criminally underseen, all either written or directed by women.

Wives (Hustruer, 1975)

Director Anja Brein

Norwegian director Anja Brein’s riposte to John Cassavetes’s Husbands (1970), Wives follows three former school friends in their 30s – Mie, Kaja, and Heidrun – who, following a drunken school reunion, make a sudden decision to flee their familial responsibilities. Roaming about Oslo, they discuss sex, womanhood, and family responsibilities. Relying heavily on improvisation, Breien’s vérité style and spontaneous direction have seen her described as a Dogme director, 20 years before Dogme arrived. In keeping with the spartan style, its depiction of female friendship largely eschews idealism or accompanying sentiment. Exploring the pressures on the newly middle class women it portrays, here the group female friendship fulfils the role of pragmatic support network, with minimal drama.

One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (L’une chante, l’autre pas, 1977)

Director Agnès Varda

Agnès Varda’s most overtly feminist film charts the friendship between two very different women. Pomme, a high school rebel, befriends Suzanne, a working class young wife and mother after the suicide of Suzanne’s husband leaves her destitute and hopeless. Through the friends’ very different journeys – Pomme’s subsequent bohemian career as a travelling singer and Suzanne’s period of working class poverty – Varda paints a picture of the utopian optimism and energy of the 1970s feminist movement in France, and of female friendship as a sisterhood that survives against all odds.

Sisters, or The Balance of Happiness (Schwestern oder Die Balance des Glücks, 1979)

Director Margarethe von Trotta

The first in a trilogy of films that explored the bonds between sisters, Margarethe von Trotta’s Sisters, or The Balance of Happiness follows siblings Maria and Anna. After the delicate equilibrium of their relationship is threatened when Maria takes a lover and makes a new female friend at work, their ostensibly amative connection is gradually revealed to be an increasingly suffocating attachment. Formally meticulous, von Trotta’s film coolly examines the projections, performances and power dynamics at play in female co-dependence with a biting elegance reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966).

Set It Off (1996)

Director F. Gary Gray

When Frankie (Vivica A. Fox) loses her job as a bank clerk her home girls Cleo (Queen Latifah) Stony (Jada Pinkett) and Tisean (Kimberly Elise), rally round to support. What starts like Waiting to Exhale (1995) in the ghetto soon turns into a ’hood Thelma & Louise (1991), as the four women hatch a plan to escape the drudgery and humiliation of making ends meet by starting new careers as bank robbers. Co-written by Kate Lanier, who also wrote the Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It? (1993), the film’s bitter-edged script shuns the easy female empowerment trope and uses the relationships between the women to explore the harsh reality of being a single, poor, African-American woman.

Me without You (2001)

Director Sandra Goldbacher

Marina (Anna Friel) and Holly (a post-Dawson’s Creek Michelle Williams) have been inseparable since the long hot summer of 1973, when they swore that they would be friends forever. As the girls grow into women, their sisterly union becomes increasingly toxic, leaving them both wondering who they would, or could be if they were released from their pact. A refreshingly honest portrayal, Sandra Goldbacher deftly examine the disjuncture between the ideal of fierce and lifelong female friendship, and the reality of the petty jealousies, competitions and flippant cruelties that make up a real one.

Tiny Furniture (2010)

Director Lena Dunham

Returning home after college, Aura (Lena Dunham) boomerangs between old and new, child and adult. Living in the shadow of her successful mother (played by her real mother, artist Laurie Simmons) and her overachieving sister (played by her real sister, Grace Dunham) her confusion about who she is and who she should become is emulated in her seemingly diametrically opposed friends Frankie (Merritt Wever) and Charlotte (Jemima Kirke).

After working with her daughter on the film, Simmons recommended that Dunham attend a screening of Girlfriends put on by the collective Not coming to a theatre near you where director Claudia Weill was in attendance. The two became friends and when Dunham started exploring the disintegration of the central female friendship in her HBO series Girls, she called Weill to direct.

Butter on the Latch (2014)

Director Josephine Decker

A recent discovery at the Berlin Film Festival, Josephine Decker’s Butter on the Latch is a singularly affecting iteration of the female friendship film. Sarah (performance artist Sarah Small) and Isolde (Isolde Chae Lawrence) are friends whose relationship inexplicably complicates over the course of a weekend at a new age Balkan music festival.

Decker gives us very little information about the women: we don’t know their occupation, social status, their aspirations, or even what the true extent of their friendship is. But she directs her film to reveal a startlingly evocative exploration of female dynamics. Employing improvised dialogue, she captures moments of intense connection between the two women, viscerally inducing the depth of their relationship. Undertaking her own editing, Decker’s elliptical structure disorients the audience, perfectly communicating the confusion and horror Sarah feels with her later failure to fathom Isolde.

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