31. The Women, directed by
Diane English

31. The Women, directed by
Diane English

Like, I Love Her, But…

By Rose Marel


Should we really favour partners over friends? While it’s known that romantic partnerships require a great deal of time and energy to maintain, we don’t often consider that perhaps friendships too deserve a similar devotion of time and energy. Without thought, friends often become the neglected side-kick. But should we really pick a favourite? What if, God forbid, a partner doesn’t work out, or the relationship is severely tested? Friendships likewise need to be cultivated, and hard times or even betrayals need to be worked through to emerge as stronger individuals and a greater team.

Each character in The Women is different, with their own values and channels of interest. Edie (played by Debra Messing) is more of a free-spirit. Or, as much as you can be free and spirited when you have about a million children. Alex (Jada Pinkett Smith) is a writer who hasn’t written since reaping the rewards of an award-winning book. She’s now more consumed with an indulgent recklessness, favouring sex and booze to the point of earning herself a nocturnal reputation among her friends. Sylvie (Annette Bening) is arguably the most career-driven, having worked tirelessly over the years to become editor of a popular magazine. Our leading lady Mary Haines (Meg Ryan) has committed herself to having it all, stretching herself over designing at her father’s company, heading a spatter of committees, running a home, parenting her eleven year-old daughter Molly and also preserving a contented marriage to husband Steven Haines.

Her life, like a machine, seems to be chugging along until someone points out to Mary the flashing red light. Or specifically, that her husband has been having an affair. And with, no less, a spritzer girl (aka a high-class department store’s perfume peddler). At the same time, her daughter makes it pretty clear that she’s frustrated by the lack of maternal attention (aka “I hate you”).  Has Mary been too busy trying to ‘have it all’ that she’s neglected to actually nurture each component of what she has? Was her complacency partly to blame? Oh, and also she got fired from her job. Just before she finds out about the affair. Talk about a one-two.

Women are often known to be healers, instinctively wired to want to help and mother those around them. The by-product of this? That their ‘helping’ can soon become meddling. Now seems the ideal time for Mary’s girlfriends to pick her back up, only they all have confusing and loud advice that smothers her own judgement. Another forceful opinion-spouter is Mary’s mother (Candice Bergen), who provides unhelpful anecdotes from her own life. But when Sylvie trades information about Mary’s affair to a gossip columnist in exchange for career leverage, Mary reels from another, possibly worse betrayal.

The contrast between Steven and Mary’s breakup, compared to that of Sylvie and Mary, emphasises the lack of care we exert in friendships. There is no real fight until months later, when the women confront each other by chance on the street. Until then, Mary refuses any contact with Sylvie, unlike the multiple phone calls and reiterating arguments that she afforded her husband. Yet, it becomes clear that wilted friendships can leave holes that aren’t filled even by new successes or self-improvements. There is real humour though, especially for female audiences, who understand the little details that make up a female friendship. For example, Sylvie and Mary’s bickering after they realise that both of them knew about the affair but hadn’t told the other (“We tell each other everything!”). It’s mocking and insightful and speaks of certain insecurities within us that seek intimacy.

The plot itself is highly melodramatic, and the tone flips between realism and theatricality. I couldn’t quite work out if it was trying to offer deep insight into the complexities of female relationships or just poke fun at them. The light frippery seemed muddied by laboured, serious moments. For me, it’s the characters that are the real draw-cards. They’re the glue that binds this film together and make us want to watch. Each character is given the opportunity to endear themselves to us and have their own funny quirks. One of the greatest characters is Mary’s elderly housekeeper Maggie, a feisty helper who plays the game but takes no bullshit. The most two-dimension character is probably Crystal, the smoking Spritzer girl, although her presence seems like a tongue-in-cheek, dramatic fulfilment of the typical home-wrecker role. Yeah, she’s shallow, but definitely amusing.

Director Diane English makes the interesting choice of having an entirely female cast, with even the significant male characters not being seen. Steven’s presence, for example, is always inferred through phone calls or notes. In my opinion this aspect worked well with the title and focus on female friendship. Based on a riotous 1936 play by Clare Boothe Luce, The Women was remade as a film in 1939. The disappointing fact that female-centric projects lack financial support meant that this 2008 version took a staggering thirteen plus years to fund, in spite of its confirmed involvement from A-Listers like Ryan. The story was considerably changed to shave away the stark gossipy tenor and infuse it instead with a more redeeming air. In this way, the 2008 model walks the line between the maternal, do-gooder side that women possess and the more meddlesome, gossiping one. Unfortunately, this makes for a somewhat confusing and mismatched intention.

Diane English, director of The Women.

My greatest issue with The Women is this incongruity and a feeling that some elements are rushed. It seems intent on nudging us towards the understanding that a friendship is as powerful as a romantic relationship, but it’s not given the weighty execution needed to fully drive thought idea home. Other ideas are thrown in too but left undeveloped, like Molly’s unhealthy relationship with food – as an eleven-year-old character this should be done well if at all, as it’s a significant and sensitive taboo. Running underneath are also notions of self-love and the role of gossip, which oddly seems to clash with the friendship focus rather than complement it.

What I did enjoy was the ability to make fun of women’s nature. The opening, for instance, is a sniper-like view of a department store, magnifying certain fashion finds and flashing against any style travesties. Yes, the movie is riddled with clichés, but it’s satirically funny and well-acted, which holds a lot of merit. Besides that, clichés are derived from some form of truth. The sad truth is, don’t we all know someone who has been traded in for the equivalent of ‘a spritzer girl’? I did enjoy this film, though I tend to be a real sucker for a chick-flick. In the end, it’s easy to love a movie about love, in whatever form this love takes.

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