Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1977
Starring: Eva Mattes, Angela Schmid, Margit Carstensen, Barbara Sukowa
Mary is happily married to her husband Stephen and enjoys their life of opulence and comfort. Her friends are all frustrated with their husbands for a variety of reasons including boredom and infidelity, and they come to discover that Stephen is having an affair with a younger woman, Crystal. Though Mary prefers to remain ignorant, she eventually finds out. Her mother and friends encourage her to ignore the affair, but her heartbreak includes her to press for divorce, though she really wants to reunite with Stephen. Soon after, Crystal and Stephen are married, but Mary finds out something that could ruin Crystal…
Based on Clare Booth Luce’s 1936 play The Women, Women in New York is basically the 1970s version of contemporary TV shows like Sex and the City or Gossip Girl as seen through the lens of the ‘30s. A group of wealthy women’s lives revolve around their husbands and boyfriends. Between afternoons spent in bed or in the bath, shopping, drinking alcohol, attending parties, and going to the hairdresser or manicurist, they gossip and backstab each other in lieu of independent lives of their own. Though I can understand how critics and audiences saw this as an attack on women, it is not really a condemnation of women, but a satire about bourgeois life, a la Effi Briest. The women are despairing, cruel, and useless creatures as a result of the evils of their repressive, claustrophobic environment. Like pet birds in gilded cages, they lead lives of extravagant comfort, but profound isolation.
Women in New York has the distinction of looking more like a play filmed for TV than a movie, such as Fassbinder’s earlier works like Das Kaffeehaus, Nora Helmer, and Bremen Freedom. As with all three of those, this shares the theme of women up against bourgeois oppression and, in many ways, it is much like Fear of Fear – about a housewife’s descent into madness – without the Valium or physical isolation. Mary is certainly alone, but she is also constantly surrounded by superficial women who claim to be her friends. They are either too caught up in their own domestic dramas, or too interested in the monstrous game of ruining the lives of others to be sympathetic or caring.
Though they are mentioned in every single conversation, there are no men in the film. This is solely a women’s world, including the principle cast of adult women, Mary’s strangely boyish daughter, and even the cast of extras, which includes the women’s staff – maids, cooks, hairdressers, governesses, and shop attendants. It is a hostile world where a woman’s sole value is place on her youth and beauty. Like some of Fassbinder’s other films from that period, including The Stationmaster’s Wife, Chinese Roulette, and to a certain extent, Satan’s Brew, this examines the effect of infidelity on a marriage. In Women in New York, issues of infidelity are further complicated because of the explicit financial benefit of a marriage. Many of Mary’s friends stay with their cheating husbands because they are willing to make this trade for increasingly wealthy husbands and comfortable lives. Mary, the outlier, is too heartbroken to live with this trade and effectively refuses to prostitute herself.
Curiously, Mary’s nemesis – the young and beautiful Crystal (played wonderfully by then newcomer Barbara Sukowa) – has begun a relationship with Mary’s husband Stephen purely because of his sizable bank account. After Stephen and Mary divorce, she continues a relationship with her lover, temporarily achieving what none of the other women are able to accomplish: passionate sexual love on one hand and wealth and social prominence on the other. Of course, this idyll is ruined not by men, but by other women. The heretofore sensitive and sympathetic Mary becomes just like her backstabbing, vicious friends and immediately takes the opportunity to ruin Crystal’s life.
This soap opera-like cycle of women hating and ruining other women has both comic and melodramatic elements, but is primarily a social satire. It’s interesting that classic Hollywood director George Cukor first film a version in 1939, as his film Gaslight was an influence on Fassbinder’s Martha, another film about a woman dealing with the horrors of bourgeois married life. While Women in New York sheds the terror and hysterical excess of Martha, Fassbinder leaves a stylistic clue between scenes: close ups on various Edward Hopper paintings. Believed to be an influence on film noir, Hopper’s seemingly mundane paintings – such as Nighthawks, Automat, Rooms by the Sea, and Office at Night – are portraits of contemporary social isolation and usually feature a woman looking bereft and alone.
Women in New York is not easy to get ahold of, but hopefully it will see the light of day on region one DVD sometime soon. Though I would only recommend it for devoted Fassbinder fans, it is an oddly prescient, undated work that shows the disturbing cycle of women’s place in society as wives, mothers, sex objects, and social climbers, figures of hatred and jealousy, and ultimately victims of their own venomous ambition. They will go to any length to keep themselves – sisters, daughters, friends, and rivals – trapped in a social prison that views them as inherently subhuman.