The last decade saw a spate of films centred around female friendship, from Frances Ha and Girlhood to Lady Bird and Booksmart. But at the other end of the genre spectrum lies Sandra Goldbacher’s poignant feature Me Without You, which rather than glorify the sanctity of female friendships, goes against the idea that women should always remain friends. As the title suggests, the film centres on a slow-burning breakup.
Set against the backdrop of late-1980s Britain, the film closely examines the turbulent friendship of Holly (Michelle Williams) and Marina (Anna Friel). Neighbours and best friends since childhood, their innocent relationship becomes one of semi-abusive codependency as both women struggle to come to terms with adulthood, the respective failings of their parents, as well as their own identities, insecurities and desires. At the heart of the film lies an uncomfortable truth: that intimate relationships have the potential to descend into suffocating encroachment.
A nostalgic throwback to the era of Joy Division, Depeche Mode, The Stranglers and Adam Ant, Me Without You takes place in suburban North London and Brighton. It’s a time of rebellious hedonism infused with a streak of anarchy and promiscuity. That the story is set in the ’80s is crucial, as it is significantly distanced from the feminist activism of the ’60s and ’70s, but precedes the third-wave feminism of the 21st century. Me Without You is not a film about female solidarity or marketable ‘Girl Power’, and in this sense it reflects a time that was not preoccupied with those notions. On the contrary, it unflinchingly confronts the nefarious behavioural patterns of two young women who enable one another’s self-loathing to the point of destruction.
Holly is from a middle-class Jewish family, and is constantly told she is smart but not pretty. Her mother tells her as a child: “Some people are pretty people and some people are clever people, which is more important than looks.” Marina, meanwhile, is repeatedly told that she is sexually desirable even when she is pre-pubescent. The constant appraisals of her appearance unsurprisingly results in her feelings of worthlessness, propelling her to become promiscuous and prone to soliciting the attention of men. Unlike Holly’s mother, Marina’s mother says to her as a child: “You’re a gorgeous girl, darling. Don’t eat too many chocolates though, you’ll get porky thighs.” Fat-shaming and later slut-shaming become permanent fixtures in Marina’s life.
What Goldbacher’s film brilliantly articulates is that through constant comparison from childhood a self-fulfilling prophecy occurs: the two girls learn to assume and become the roles society has projected onto them. They fall into an age-old sexist trap – the one which harmfully maintains that women can only be beautiful or smart, but never both. They represent to the other one the quality which they are told they are lacking in. As a consequence their friendship becomes a precarious balance of opposites, eventually developing into a jealous battle wherein loyalty and resentment clash.
“There’s no me without you” is Marina’s mantra, who controls and manipulates Holly, seeing her mousy, pensive bestie as an extension of herself and a reminder that she can succeed as the outgoing, ‘pretty’ one. Holly, the more introspective of the two, eventually decides she no longer wants to conform to the ‘type’ she has been boxed into and so distances herself from the relationship. By this point she had already fallen in love with Marina’s older brother, Nat, who to his sister’s annoyance loves Holly back. The cracks in their friendship are irreversibly formed when both girls fall for their philosophy tutor, Daniel, played by Kyle Machlachlan. Their duplicity is revealed to one another as they separately discover that he has been having an affair with both of his young students.
By the end of the film, Holly admits to herself that she and Marina have remained friends out of a displaced sense of loyalty, rather than because they still truly see or like one another as individuals. Ingeniously, Goldbacher doesn’t allow the viewer to feel more compassion for one woman over the other, while also highlighting a perennial truth about life and companionship: that friendships are more fragile than we think but also need space to survive. The film teaches us that in order to allow life-long friendships to thrive, without becoming toxic, we must sometimes set boundaries from those we love the most.