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  Girlfriends Gal Pals
Year: 1978
Director: Claudia Weill
Stars: Melanie Mayron, Anita Skinner, Eli Wallach, Christopher Guest, Bob Balaban, Viveca Lindfors, Amy Wright, Nancy Mette, Kenneth McMillan, Russell Horton, Kathryn Walker, Roderick Cook, Kristoffer Tabori, Mike Kellin, Jean De Baer, Albert Rogers
Genre: Comedy, DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Susan Weinblatt (Melanie Mayron) lives with her roommate and best friend Anne Munroe (Anita Skinner) in a tiny New York apartment, and they could not be happier. Well, they could, they have love lives they have not sorted out with the men in (and out) of their lives, but together they are stronger than they would have been apart. Susan needs support emotionally anyway, as she is making a living as a photographer but would like to be taken seriously as an artist, and has a portfolio of her work she feels would impress the public had they the opportunity to view it. But then Anne drops a bombshell: she is moving out to marry Martin (Bob Balaban).

In the nineteen-seventies, relationship comedy dramas were more or less a genre on their own, a growth of the so-called women's pictures of previous decades mixed with the humour of the female-led, lighthearted farces which together would evolve into the romcom as we know them today. You could see some of that evolution in director Claudia Weill's Girlfriends, and while it is debatable if it was a key work in the style, it was certainly not ignored in its day, with Stanley Kubrick not afraid to let everyone know he considered it the best film of 1978. It wasn't, but you could see why it would so appeal to seventies audiences who were not accustomed to this frankness.

Does this mean that dreaded word "dated" must be brought into play? You had to admit it could not look more 1978 if it tried, with New York, the city of the seventies, and its general ambience exhibited throughout the plot in the characters' attitudes and appearances. You cannot go without mentioning Woody Allen in this context, whose Annie Hall set out so much in the romcom rules that it is unimaginable it would have taken the shape it did without him, even if some do not wish to acknowledge it latterly, and you could not say Weill was really on that level of influence, but there was evidently something in the air, a new liberation and a new neurosis, that many picked up on.

Mayron inhabited Susan like a duck takes to water, you could almost believe she was playing herself in this and not operating from Vicki Polon's screenplay, and it was her authenticity that helped the movie through its bumps and troubles. Everyone else, who we are admittedly seeing through Susan's eyes, was mercurial to a fault, changing their minds as if it was going out of fashion, confusing her when she needs stability, and proving unreliable in general when a rock in her life, be that a friend or a career or a lover, would do our heroine the power of good. Yet this is the modern world now, you cannot rely on anyone or anything when everyone is geared to satisfying their own need as the Me Decade rumbles on relentlessly, so it's little wonder people like Susan, who simply wants to get along with others, is left all at sea.

But those dated elements went further than the fashions, as for instance in between boyfriends she falls for her rabbi (Eli Wallach) who seems to provide that reliability through his religion, despite the age gap and him already being long married. Once we realise he is every bit as unsure of his place and goals as Susan is, we feel sorry for him, yet you cannot envisage a modern comedy offering that kind of union as something acceptable, unless it was for gross out laughs. The details were very much of the time too: if you were in any doubt this was from the seventies, note that one of her photographs is a closeup of some pubic hair (and this is exhibited in a gallery!). Weill did, however, have an eye for casting, although Skinner did little else, Mayron became a successful television star and director, Christopher Guest (as Susan's offbeat boyfriend) created his improv comedies, and Bob Balaban became Bob Balaban. Also in there was the perennially underrated Amy Wright as the substitute roommate who makes a pass at Susan (and is turned down). Overall, it was like immersing yourself in its era like some films can be.

[The Criterion Collection release this on Blu-ray with a wealth of extras:

New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by director Claudia Weill and director of photography Fred Murphy, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
New interview with Weill
New interview with Weill and actors Melanie Mayron, Christopher Guest, and Bob Balaban
New interview with screenwriter Vicki Polon
New interview with Weill and writer and filmmaker Joey Soloway
Joyce at 34, a 1972 short film codirected by Weill and Joyce Chopra
Commuters, a 1970 short film by Weill and Eliot Noyes
Subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
PLUS: Essays by film critic Molly Haskell and scholar Carol Gilligan.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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