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​Women friends in the cinema

· ​A male art ·

It was in 1986 that a film director from New Zealand made her début in the world of the cinema: Jane Campion was later to become a name known and appreciated by the wider public, but all traces of her first film have been irrevocably lost. This may also be why The Two Friends, a beautiful and melancholic film – in addition recounted by a woman, representing an almost unique event, confronts a theme hardly ever addressed by Hollywood – which is friendship between women.

There is no art more masculine than the cinema: and if, especially in the past, the figure of the woman film director was hardly more than a fantasy, today the number of women screenwriters still remains surprisingly low. May this absence of women perhaps explain why the filmography dedicated to friendship between women is decidedly scant? Yet, although they are rare and made by men, good films on this subject are not lacking.

The poster for the film “The Women” by George Cukor (1939)

In 1939 the film director George Cukor made The Women, a film which has a most rare peculiarity: the total absence of male characters. But Cukor – who has also gone down in history as the women’s director par excellence – in fact in this case makes a film that is none too covertly male chauvinist. In this tale of a betrayed wife who is helped by her friends to win back her husband – according to the remarriage plot typical of comedy in those years – we are struck by the indulgence of other times when people were invited to wink at the worst male vices. This is a retrograde image if we consider the figures of fully emancipated women which, precisely, sophisticated comedy had been able to develop throughout that decade. Apart from these undoubted limitations it is in fact quite an amusing film and above all is capable of representing female solidarity in a convincing, and even at times moving, way. Cukor himself was to do definitely better almost 20 years later when, with Les Girls (1957), he put his name to a less sugary musical about three dancers, who, having shared years of aspirations, disappointments and hopes, are divided by success.

There is a similar plot in Stagedoor which Gregory La Cava made in 1937: The protagonist, who comes from a rich family, embarks on a theatrical career in order not to live on a private income and to have a taste of Bohemian life in a hostel where aspiring actresses live. Between rivalry and drama Stagedoor is also a story of female friendship, convincing and in places heart-rending. It is perhaps the most absolutely beautiful story ever told on the screen.

Years later, it fell once again to two male film directors to stage stories of female friendships, complex and in any case fascinating: we are referring to Persona (1966) by Ingmar Bergman and to 3 women (1977) by Robert Altman, films that have in common the theme of emotional osmosis and the risk of the manipulation of the weaker personality by the stronger one. Both these great directors however have offered another, more positive version of friendship between women; Altman with the melancholic and crepuscular Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982) and Bergman with Brink of life,also called So close to life (1958), the story of three pregnancies with very different outcomes and of the women who carry them to term, supporting each other.

The film closer to us in time which was to introduce Peter Jackson, the future director of Lord of the Rings, also deals with female friendship: in 1994, in fact, with Heavenly creatures, Jackson, – strangely enough also a New Zealander – tells the true story from their difficult childhood of two Australian girls for whom friendship becomes a way to escape from reality. The representation of the almost magic subconscious which the teenage girls have in common is somewhat coarse and betrays the film director’s dealings with the horror genre, but the plot remains emblematic: it shows how a strong friendship between women could in the past be seen with concern and even with suspicion by a society with narrow-minded views. Nevertheless the protagonists, as much in the film as in real life, will later choose the worst road in order to free themselves from certain restraints.

Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, protagonists of “Thelma & Louise” by Ridley Scott (1991)

By contrast, in 1998 Érick Zonca made The dreamlife of angels (original title: La Vie rêvée des anges), which recounts with sensitivity the friendship between two young women who support each other in Paris in a life of loneliness and precarious work. The arrival of a man who is completely different from them, an arrogant and self-centred daddy’s boy with whom one of the two falls desperately in love, will reveal the frailty of their bond.

A completely female cast returns in Girl, interrupted (1999) by James Mangold, set in a psychiatric institute for adolescents. As a view of mental illness the film, to say the least, is superficial, but as a story of friendships it has touching moments. And the relationship created between the introverted protagonist and an aggressive companion, who is nevertheless able to bring out in the other a healthy awareness of herself, is interesting.

Even the best-known female friendship in the history of the cinema, that is, Thelma & Louise (1991) by Ridley Scott, flows into criminality. In the film the relationship between the protagonists is also cemented by experiences of violence suffered from men. In particular, the attempted rape, which has the damaging effect of reawakening in the other woman the memory of a past experience of violence, triggers a desire for revenge. Scott is interested above all in the thriller aspect of the event, and often spuriously seeks strong emotions. However this does not mean that the film doesn’t have some intense and even poetic moments of truth. And that it has entered the subconscious of more than one generation.

Emilio Ranzato

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