Three siblings meet on a train for a journey of family bonding and self-discovery. Along the way they wear fabulous clothes, carry eye-catching luggage, and get drunk and talk about love. By the end of the film, their familial bonds are strengthened, and the three embrace. Sounds like a made-for-Lifetime TV movie, right? In fact, it's "The Darjeeling Limited," the latest Wes Anderson project, and the only female characters are onscreen for a combined total of about 10 minutes. Similarly, male relationships are celebrated in "Superbad," in which two high-school buddies attempt to unburden themselves of their virginity, but mostly they enjoy each other's company. The new chick flick, it seems, is by and about guys.
Traditionally, films about relationships featured women, as with the '30s and '40s heyday of so-called "women's pictures," also known as "weepies." Although usually directed by men, these melodramatic, character-driven films depict female protagonists negotiating traditionally "feminine" concerns: home, family, friendship and romance. ("Male weepies," meanwhile, depicted men facing crises of masculinity in the arena of sports, war or war's aftermath, such as William Wyler's 1946 "The Best Years of Our Lives.") Douglas Sirk's oeuvre includes several classic weepies, including a 1959 remake of the 1934 film "Imitation of Life" about the friendship between a white woman and her black maid, and their relationships with their daughters. George Cukor's 1939 film "The Women" has an all-female cast whose primary relationships, at least for the duration of the film, are with each other. "Mildred Pierce" (1945) stars Joan Crawford as a mother who makes personal sacrifices for her spoiled daughter. As the critic Molly Haskell points out, while the idea of telling a story from a woman's point of view was revolutionary, weepies were as much about sacrifice and suffering as self-empowerment, and often ended badly for the heroines, such as "Stella Dallas" (1937), which ends with a working-class mother standing alone in the rain, having given everything so her daughter can have a better life.
As women moved behind the camera, they began telling women's stories and not just melodramas. The revival of "women's pictures," (now rechristened "chick flicks") coincided with the rise of independent film in the '80s and '90s, and featured protagonists who were allowed to live, and even laugh a little. Movies like "Gas, Food, Lodging," about a single mother living in a trailer with her two headstrong daughters; "Muriel's Wedding," about a friendship between two misfits; "Walking and Talking," about two friends navigating one's impending marriage, and "Clockwatchers," about a group of female temps bonding on the job, were all primarily about nonromantic relationships, either friendships or familial, between women.
But lately it seems if two characters are sharing their feelings and valuing each other's company, they're more likely to be men than women. Anderson's entire oeuvre, beginning with "Bottle Rocket," a brothers' road-trip buddy picture (sound familiar?), is comprised of films about boy bonding, with female characters making brief cameos as catalysts for the characters' self-actualization. Cult favorites like "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Office Space" feature near-totally male casts. As critic David Denby noted, the true love stories of Judd Apatow's "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up" are not between the protagonists and their putative female love interests, but between the protagonists and their lovably reprobate friends, with screentime apportioned accordingly.
This is not to say these films are not accessible for a female audience. It does, however, make one wonder why, if there's indeed an audience for closely observed films about intimate, nonsexual relationships, there isn't a female Wes Anderson making films today.
The most commercially successful female director is Nancy Meyers, but her films more often feature women alone, or at odds with each other. In "Something's Gotta Give," Diane Keaton's character is essentially solitary, her friends and family an afterthought to the plot. The equally lonely hearted "The Holiday" begins with the promise of a female-centric plot, when Cameron Diaz's character e-mails Kate Winslet's character about a prospective house swap. "Are there any men in your village?" Diaz writes. "Zero," Winslet replies. "Perfect," Diaz writes back. Winslet is wrong, of course--she's forgetting her brother, who happens to be Jude Law, and the two women don't meet for the rest of the film. Films that are about family, like "The Upside of Anger," about a mother and her idiosyncratic daughters, "In Her Shoes," about two competitive sisters, and "Because I Said So," again about a mother with hard-to-manage daughters, depict these relationships as fraught, fractious and slightly unhealthy--the characters must learn to loosen their intense family bonds in order to grow as individuals, as opposed to strengthening them, as in Anderson's "The Darjeeling Limited."
Hollywood can be hostile territory for female directors in general, and may be becoming even less welcoming. As Meyers said recently, "the pendulum is swinging in the wrong direction," from the time a decade ago when women were able to get small, relationship-driven films produced. But even male directors who presumably have the clout to get a "women's picture" made have turned their attention elsewhere. James L. Brooks, who directed the classic chick flick (and perennial Lifetime fare) "Terms of Endearment," most recently made the male-centric "Spanglish," in which the female characters were a caricature of a driven career woman and an equally cartoonish nurturing maid, and co-wrote and coproduced "The Simpsons Movie," a boy's film if ever there was one. Terry Zwigoff, who followed the documentary "Crumb," about a cartoonist with serious women issues, with the superb female friendship focused "Ghost World," went on to give us the male-dominated (though quite funny) "Bad Santa" and the disastrous "Art School Confidential." When directors, male and female, do give women lead roles, they usually share the stage with men, in romantic comedies ("The Break Up"), dramas ("Closer") or action films ("Mr. and Mrs. Smith").
It's possible women just aren't interested in making films about female relationships anymore--Julie Delpy, the French actress who just made "Two Days in Paris," recently remarked that since her film, "people are trying to contact me to do movies, like, they're looking for a female director, and it's all about a relationship. What does that mean? Is it about breast feeding?" The slate of current and upcoming films by women would bear this out. Kasi Lemmon's biopic of a controversial DJ, "Talk to Me"; Kimberley Peirce's Iraq film "Stop Loss," and Julie Taymor's '60s nostalgia trip "Across the Universe" all focus on male characters. Certainly, if women are still having a hard time getting films made (only 7 percent of the directors listed in the Directors Guild of America are female), they shouldn't be further marginalized by being forced to make "relationship films" if they don't want to. And there have been a few recent throwbacks to small, independent, female-centric films, like Adrienne Shelly's "Waitress" and Zoe Cassavete's "Broken English." But both these films feel like retreads of familiar ground, suggesting the possibility that female-bonding as a dramatic subject is simply played out while male-bonding outside the context of war or athletics still feels like fresh territory for directors.
Maybe a female version of "The Darjeeling Limited" would fall flat (not that Anderson's exactly soars). Maybe his quirky, colorful, dystopic vision of humanity can only be embodied by male characters, eternally questing for lost parents and personal identity. It just struck me--seeing his latest film with a friend who, while acknowledging that Anderson makes the same film over and over again, admitted he loves them every time--that I could come up with no female director about whom I could say the same. Watching the movie, I liked the colors, I liked the outfits, I liked the scenery, I liked the witty dialogue. I even liked the ever-present Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton product-placement suitcases. I just wished women had been carrying them.