Sunday Editor’s Pick: Career Girls (1997)

by on April 1, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick


Playing Sun April 8 at 4:30, 6:15, 9:15 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]

 
More (nuanced) girl power in BAM’s “Hey Girlfriend! Lena Dunham Selects” series, ending on a high point with Mike Leigh’s endearing gem.
 

David Denby for New York Magazine:

A reverie on time and friendship. Leigh shifts back and force between the drab student past, in which each girl, in a different way, was a mess, and the rather comfortable present. Working in the business world, the women have learned to smooth out the rougher edges and hide their discontent. But if we see the ways they have changed, we also see the ways they haven’t changed – and can’t change.
 
Leigh is less interested in dramatic resolution than in portraiture and mood. Yet “Career Girls” is hardly without tension. Katrin Cartlidge drives through each scene in a fury. In her student days, her Hannah is a tempest of jokes, quotations, put-downs, little bits of patter and profanity, the Cartlidge tongue moving faster than light. We don’t get, or even hear, everything she says – the De Niro and Brando imitations that flash by, the quick mocking voices, the rapid and scathing commentary on everything. But we may be ravished by it nonetheless. Leigh has dramatized something that remains part of the past of many in the audience – a time at school when wit and friendship and shared references to movies where the things that mattered most.
 
Leigh’s touch with character is idiosyncratic and almost always deeply moving. He digs deeper into people than any other director now working in movies, and he never touches cliché. Each of his characters is an original. For all its jokes and its spirit of female solidarity, the movie has an overall melancholy. The past hasn’t stopped hurting either of these women. It’s part of Leigh’s complexity of mind that he makes us see that they’ve been hurt without reducing the hopes that we have for them in the future.

 

 

Kenneth Turan for the Los Angeles Times:

This look at the weekend reunion of two former college roommates puts into even sharper relief what makes writer-director Mike Leigh unique among his contemporaries. It underlines the qualities his more than a dozen films share that makes each linger in the memory, as this one does, long after the efforts of other filmmakers have faded to black.
 
Though its plot frequently falls back on coincidence, so much so that the characters joke about it, “Career Girls” has the almost magical ability to involve us emotionally with these women even though there are points when we would’ve sworn that wouldn’t be possible.
 
Secrets get revealed as well as lies, moments of real sadness and sharp humor are experienced, and everyone gets a better understanding of why (aside from a mutual admiration for the Cure, six of whose songs are on the soundtrack) the friendship came into being and why it’s likely to last. Against considerable odds, a bond of genuine intimacy is forged on screen, and movies that can accomplish that have come to be Mike Leigh’s trademark.

 

David Edelstein for Slate:

Career Girls is hard not to treasure. I wasn’t crying at the end, the way some in the audience were, but I wasn’t eager for the credits to roll. Leigh gives his actors the space they need to establish a character’s rhythms, and the results are like a richer kind of oxygen. I suspect he works the way he does–and his films are such a mishmash–because his world view is happily compromised. A Marxist, he can’t suppress his sympathy for those who look for meaning in the material world, in backyard barbecues and cars and fax machines. Class might be central, but it isn’t destiny. And yuppies are too ripe for satire to be branded as evil. The only thing that’s certain is that when actors are given their heads, they have a whale of a time, and the audience does too. The rest is open-ended.

 

 

Amy Taubin for the Village Voice:

“I suppose on a clear day you can see the class struggle from here,” quips the snarly, snaggle-toothed, altogether brilliant Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge) as she looks over the Thames from the window of a flat she can t quite afford to buy. Cartlidge’s Hannah is the main reason to see Mike Leigh’s Career Girls. Films that get a handle on female friendship are so rare[…]
 
Six years after they graduated from a London college, former roommates Hannah and Annie (Lynda Steadman) spend a weekend together. Annie, who majored in psych, has a personnel management job ( mostly pushing papers ) up north. Hannah, who took a first in literature, works for a high-end stationery company in a management position that offers such perks as use of the company car and a home fax machine. Dissimilar personalities, Hannah and Annie bonded over their shared sense of social unease and their somewhat dubious prospects for an independent, middle-class lifestyle. In college, Annie’s cross was the red, scaly patch of allergic dermatitis covering one side of her jaw that lured her fingers into an ambivalent dance of pointing and caressing. You look like you’ve done the tango with a cheese-grater, observed the caustic Hannah in a flashback moments after they first met. The remark sent Annie flying into the bathroom in tears, leaving Hannah to bang her forehead in despair at her cruel tongue. The flood of conflicting emotions (and s/m undercurrents) released by this encounter developed over the course of four years into a relationship that was probably as close to love as either of them had known before or has experienced since.
 
The best thing about Career Girls is that it shows how women are complicit with the social order in marginalizing the most rewarding (and potentially disruptive) relationships in their lives until they become virtually nonexistent. Not only is this the first time Hannah and Annie have seen each other since college; it also, despite their tearful protestations to the contrary, may be the last.

 


 
Leigh on The Charlie Rose Show discussing the film here.

 
Total Film on Leigh’s challenge of following up Secrets and Lies:

How, then, do you follow a quartet of immense, excellent and enormously successful films, a run of projects that culminated in five Oscar nominations for Secrets And Lies alone? How, for that matter, do you top High Hopes, Life Is Sweet and the mighty, brooding Naked? Suppose you’re Mike Leigh, arguably England’s finest director: what the hell do you do next?
 
Well, you make a small film. Almost a tiny film. A film that comes in at under an hour-and-a-half, with only two, possibly three, main characters, and a couple of medium-sized supporting roles. You don’t question any eternal truths; you don’t rail against any injustices; you don’t tackle any big issues. You simply let some great actors do some skillful acting, gently tap into all the subtle expertise you’ve accumulated from more than a quarter-of-a-century’s worth of film-making, and let events run their course. Easy.
 
The result’s a soft, strong, but not very long mini-gem that’s intimate, loveable and perfectly observed. Yes, it may indeed be a slight movie, melting like a snowflake on your tongue, but it’s no less delectable for coming and going so quickly.

 

 
Janet Maslin for The New York Times:

With his usual deep, engrossing attention to behavioral detail, Mr. Leigh uses ”Career Girls” to visit and fuse contrasting chapters into a continuum of the women’s lives. Over the course of their brief reunion, Hannah and Annie reveal the present while they talk about the past, and the film explodes with jittery, hand-held flashbacks to match their buried emotions.
 
The veneer of businesslike adulthood can be seen as exactly that, a thin layer of propriety over raw feelings that never went away. Yet the film also appreciates the true growth that has carried Hannah and Annie beyond the shared, angry turmoil of their post-adolescent times.
 
”Career Girls” doesn’t impose any false closure on its wistful portraits, nor does it contrive more than a few strained coincidences (like Adrian’s reappearance) to create a conventional story. Instead, it simply watches its characters the way each watches the other: with the rueful, generous, penetrating gaze of a longtime friend.

 

Scott Macaulay talks with Mike Leigh for Filmmaker Magazine:

Leigh says the idea for Career Girls came out of his reflecting about the process he uses to make films. He’s famous for developing his stories and screenplays with his actors, using a series of workshops and rehearsals to define both character and story.
 
“It’s quite simple,” Leigh says. “I’ve made lots of films where a great deal of time is spent with the past, but I’ve remained within conventional chronology. In the preparation for my films, we live through years of a character’s development. A huge amount of preparation in the rehearsal period of Secrets and Lies [involved creating] years and years of family relationships. Normally, this function works retrospectively as ‘experience’. In this film, I wanted to arrest those moments in the past and use them to motivate the action.”
 
There’s a small, telling moment towards the end of the film: Anne and Hannah stop before a Cure poster advertising a new album and tour. Ten years later, the band plays on. Annie asks Hannah if she still buys their albums. No, Hannah replies. Offhand, Hannah admits she still does. Leigh says, “They have a bit of money, they’re independent, their lives are different, but it’s a role they’re playing–it’s not what they’re actually doing. They have become ‘career girls’. [The title] is not about ‘work’ but the way [the women] are now playing it. The way people change and the ways they remain the same–the film, it’s that really!

 

 
As does Anthony Kaufman for Indiewire:

What about the specific stylistic technical choices you were doing to work organically [within “Career Girls”]. . .

First of all, the decision, is a collaborative decision. But the actors, the designer, costume and production, and the makeup designer who was a very regular, important contributor to my films, but above
all, the cinematographer, Dick Pope, who has shot all my films since “Life is Sweet”. Looking at say, okay, these women, this world in the 90’s, it’s kind of crisp and sleek, together, hard-edged, graphic, this we’ll shoot in a disciplined way…Then we said, to shoot the past: we shot it all hand-held, we used different filter stock, much bluer and colder; those two things were partly to do with it being contrasting, partly to do with it being fragmentary memory. But also, it helped give it an 80’s look. The sort of grittier, grungier student atmosphere was better served by those colors. And I kept hearing The Cure. And I sort of thought, we could have The Cure. So we approached The Cure and they turned out to be fans of mine and they said, as long as it was always them, and nobody else, we could pretty well have it for nothing — which made it possible to do, cause those things can be exorbitant and prohibitive. Does it work? I don’t know. Do you like the film?
 
How political, if at all, is this movie?

Mike Leigh: How political is the film? As we both know, political is not something for which a currency or a measurement exists, but a question that really has to be asked in order to deal with that question is, “In
what way are my films political anyhow, at all?” On the one hand, they are films always about how we live our lives, films in which the characters always are seen very precisely in their socio-economic, cultural context. Which politics of various kinds figure, of least among them, which is sexual politics. In all those senses, as far as I’m concerned, the films are inherently political.
 
How political is “Career Girls”? Well, that’s as political as it is. How we are formed, defined, by that which went before and the way we were before. . . Ricky in “Career Girls” is obviously intelligent, obviously has potential, has got down to London, has got down to a polytechnic, but can’t hack all sorts of other stuff and drops out. The system can’t deal with guys like that, they defeat, they neglect, they shit on guys like that, the system shits on guys like that. Hannah, I’m still talking about the politics, is a very interesting case. Hannah, for me, is the most 80’s character in the film in the sense that she has all the natural questioning and anarchy and stuff of a potentially seriously politically motivated person, but in the end, when she’s young, all the energy goes into debunking and being anarchic, rather than actually channeling it towards a direct political end. And one could argue, hypothetically, that such a person, for example, had she been around in the 60’s and probably the 70’s, would have probably have been more tangibly, political active. By the 80’s, you could sit around, kind of, playing at it. By the 90’s, far from having sorted out her politics, as she says at one point, “from where her heart is.” She’s kind of, in a very 90’s way, in a quite cynical way, thought right, okay, can’t beat the system. Join it. She’s a propagated capitalist. So in all these terms, implicitly, yeah! It’s a political film.

 

 

Laura Miller for Salon:

Mike Leigh’s rumpled and melancholy “Career Girls,” about two former college roommates reuniting for a weekend, cuts through the artificial flavorings of this summer’s movies like the very best bittersweet chocolate. It’s more a morsel than a meal, not as substantial and cathartic as last year’s Oscar-nominated “Secrets and Lies,” but anything at all by Leigh reminds us that movies can be about what it means to be alive in this world, right now, surrounded by real people — not just offer fantasy thrill rides through celebrityland.
 
It’s Leigh’s MO to introduce us to people whose company we’re not sure we can endure for the next two hours, then craftily win our sympathy. Annie’s flinching and twitching and Hannah’s hyperactive patter almost scuttle that plan — they feel more like caricatures than anyone in a Mike Leigh movie has for years. In that, “Career Girls” harks back to the savage comedy of Leigh’s early TV films for the BBC, ruthless little set pieces like “Nuts in May” and “Abigail’s Party.” Back then, he could grind our noses into human vanity and hopelessness with a ferocity that even Samuel Beckett would envy. In “Career Girls,” wallflower Annie leads on a classmate who’s even more a misfit than herself, then backs off once she’s gratified her craving for romantic attention. Misery, this tells us, breeds cruelty as often as kindness.
 
But Annie and Hannah do survive and evolve, and in the contemporary scenes in “Career Girls” they’ve gained the strength to revel in the sort of girlish larks they missed during their surly adolescence. In the movie’s funniest scene, they do a little speculative house hunting for Hannah and find themselves getting the grand tour of a high-rise condo from a lecherous young yuppie. “On a clear day, I bet you can see the class struggle from here,” says Hannah, peering out the window. “What’s your name, luv?” asks their oily host, and she promptly replies “Rumpelstiltskin.”

 

 

Richard Armstrong in his tribute to the late, great Katrin Cartridge for Senses of Cinema:

For its portrait of female solidarity and its treatment of the role memory plays in everyday subjectivity, Career Girls (Leigh, 1997) is one of the most touching of recent British films. Unlike many of Cartlidge’s films in which she is never on screen for long enough, she and Lynda Steadman had the film to themselves. Again, it details a close friendship between two women, Hannah (Cartlidge) and Annie (Steadman), meeting up six years after leaving university. Like many of Leigh’s films, it catches London at a specific moment. Hannah is a student in the late-’80s: tuna-eating, Cure-loving, full of disillusionment on top of her personal demons. Studied more intently by the film and infinitely more self-aware than Sophie, Hannah – “It’s Han-nah, actually” – is a densely-textured character hiding behind wordplay – “Livin’ in the pasta” – gestures – “D’you wanna fight!” – and, lately, glasses as a power-dressing retail executive. Shaped by the need to care for an alcoholic mother and stand on her own two feet from a young age, Hannah is the product of endlessly internalized loneliness and rage. Cartlidge’s performance is virtuosic, a generous weave of frustration, aggression, irony, intelligence, humour, allusion and confession. Critics have accused Leigh’s characters of labouring tics and mannerisms. But I was at university at around the time Hannah was and I knew vulnerable women who took comfort in each other’s friendship as a gentler kind of loving. Preoccupied with other codes and rituals, mainstream society is a world away from these people in the process of growing.
 
The most powerful moments in Career Girls find Hannah letting her defences down and breaking down. When they run into Ricky (Mark Benton), a brilliant student friend now lonely, embittered and an incoherent manic depressive spouting non-sequiturs, he asks: “D’you wanna live forever?” Upset at seeing him this way, Hannah tearfully replies: “I certainly don’t.” In the light of recent events, Hannah’s reply is very sad. Yet, as if mirroring our helplessness before Cartlidge’s own end, there is nothing Hannah or Annie can do about Ricky. As Stella Bruzzi wrote in her Sight and Sound review in September 1997: “Rather than let us feel comforted and replenished by our cathartic experiences, it confronts us with the futility of film’s love of emotional identification.” By this light, this latter-day woman’s picture, (if I may characterize its account of remembered female struggle thus), becomes less redemptive than Breaking the Waves, but more realistic and for that reason somehow more pleasing.

 

 
John Petrakis talks to the two female stars for the Chicago Tribune:

So what is a “career girl” anyway?

Lynda Steadman: If you’re talking about the title of the film, anybody who’s a follower of Mike Leigh’s work will know that it’s not meant to be taken literally. There’s irony there. Because you couldn’t say that they’re the hottest career women in town.
 
Katrin Cartlidge: Yeah, they’re not the top of the tree. I mean, it’s remarkable that Hannah is doing anything, including tying her shoelaces. But “career girl” is actually an ’80s term — in Britain anyway — which was bandied about because of Margaret Thatcher. It was all about the idea that women should go out there and be as brutal, ambitious and single-minded as men, without having babies. Of course, all these concepts and feelings began to change in the 1990s. Now women are wondering whether they can do both, and whether the men they’ve gotten involved with would cope with it if they did.
 
What drives Hannah and Annie to become career girls? Is it pressure? Or escape?

Cartlidge: I think it’s both. For Hannah, it’s definitely escape, but also, it’s terrifically important for her not to be dependant on anybody. Her reaction to her parents’ split-up and her mother’s decline into alcoholism — as far as she sees it — was a result of her mother depending on somebody very weak. Hannah talks about men as being dangerous weaknesses. She somehow feels that a career is going to protect her from all that.
 
Steadman: Whereas with Annie, I would say yes, the pressure’s there, but it’s not so much pressure as it is a feeling that the only way to find independence is through acquiring a career for herself. Otherwise, she’s at home in Yorkshire with her mum, living this cocooned existence, not allowing herself to grow up.
 
Cartlidge: It’s still a real dilemma for women, this whole notion of where to put their emotionality and how to deal with it in the workplace, because the workplace has been designed by men. There still isn’t room for the strength and vulnerability which Hannah talks to Annie about at the end of the film. Women still have to fit into something quite male, quite masculine.

 

 
Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

The world of Mike Leigh is one of small victories, painfully earned. His characters don’t have lives that are easily transformed; they can’t remake themselves overnight, as self-help success stories. They’re stuck with who they are and what they started out with, and somehow they find the courage to carry out essential upkeeps and improvements.

 
Leigh likes to let scenes develop in their own time. They don’t rush to a payoff, because how the characters talk is often more important than their conclusions. Both actresses are highly mannered (or Leigh directs them to be), and as we watch, we’re reminded of how smooth and articulate most characters are in the movies–why, you’d almost imagine someone had written out all the words for them to memorize! Not Annie, who seems blazingly self-conscious, and not Hannah, who is so wound up that words come tumbling out like an assault.Distinctive speech styles can be an affectation, or they can be a gift from the actor: “Career Girls” is like a workshop on conversational self-defense.
 
As “Career Girls” advances, we gradually realize that there is not going to be much of a plot to resolve. Annie and Hannah are in midstream. They know where they came from, but it’s pretty murky in the direction they’re going. They are neither successes nor failures, neither happy nor particularly sad, and they have jobs that, for the moment, focus their lives. They are, in short, like most of the young job holders in big cities, and to an important degree their self-images are defined by the apartments they live in. (Looking out the window of a high-rise shown by an estate agent, one observes, “You can see the class struggle from up here!”) What is the use of a film like this? It inspires reflection. Strongly plotted films establish a goal and reach it, and we can go home under the impression that something has been accomplished. Mike Leigh’s films realize that for most people, most days, life consists of the routine of earning a living, broken by fleeting thoughts of where our efforts will someday take us–financially, romantically, spiritually or even geographically. We never arrive in most of those places, but the mental images are what keep us trying.

 

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