21 October 2011

Haigh’s ‘Weekend’

Alone together: Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New)

I get the feeling that filmmaker Andrew Haigh is speaking through Glen, one of the principal characters in his movie Weekend: an artist exploring gay themes, Glen predicts that gays won’t come to his gallery exhibition because they’re only interested in “a glimpse of cock,” while for straights the whole subject matter is simply too remote to be bothered with.

Just so, Haigh has written a gay love story that has won prizes and sensational reviews like this one from New York’s David Edelstein: “I hate to damage so fragile a work with overpraise, but, gay or straight, if you don’t see yourself in this movie, you need to get a life.”* And yet a midweek evening screening in Manhattan was sparsely attended.

That’s a shame, because Weekend is a wonderful movie, hugely ambitious in its very smallness. People have been calling it a romantic comedy, but I’m not sure that’s apt — or anyway, this quiet English picture doesn’t much resemble other gay rom-coms, which tend to be about pretty boys saying stupid things — and it doesn’t resemble straight rom-coms, either, in that it is so completely honest and real. Thank you, Mr. Edelstein: I did see myself in this movie.

We begin with Russell (Tom Cullen), held in such tight close-up that we’re constantly aware how alone he is, even at a dinner party: only fragments of other people enter to share the screen with him, and he doesn’t really connect with any of them. (Tellingly, they’re his best friends — but they’re straight.) When Russell arrives at a gay bar, the camera pulls back just enough to lose him in the crowd. And so you know, without being told: he’s ordinary, and in life you’d probably never notice him.

Gradually the camera will embrace both Russell and Glen (Chris New), still in tight close-up much of the time, but together. They cruise each other at the bar, then flirt with others, and somehow wind up with each other. Haigh doesn’t show us exactly how it happens, and he sets up a nice morning-after joke when the camera reveals Glen in Russell’s bed: we were kind of expecting to see the other guy. Since none of the actors is well-known, Haigh can play with their identities this way.

Identity is Glen’s fixation, the subject of his art project: what we reveal to others, what we expect from them. In bed, he interviews Russell about the night they’ve spent together, and here Haigh begins to explore our expectations of the identities of his characters. Over the course of the eponymous weekend, we see that Glen — initially chattier and more open — insists that other people, including Russell, speak their truths to him not least because he wants to avoid speaking certain of his own truths.

Meanwhile, Russell, quasi-closeted, so laconic he’s barely articulate, turns out to be more honest, not least about his emotions. He’s engaged in an artistic endeavor of his own, somewhat similar to Glen’s, a “log” in which he describes the men he’s known. But he’s not writing for the public, only for himself.

Russell is a lifeguard, and at first Glen can’t refrain from condescending: this is England, after all, and class always plays a role. But the lowly job wins Glen’s respect when he realizes that Russell actually has saved people’s lives. I wondered (somewhat unhappily) whether this was an on-the-nose set-up, whether Russell was now supposed to save Glen’s life, whether metaphorically or not.

But the movie’s conclusion is ambiguous. The one-night stand has turned into two days spent mostly in each other’s company, and we see the beginnings of what may be a durable bond — if not for the fact that Glen announces that he’s moving to the United States, taking the train to London on Sunday evening.

I won’t give anything away, I hope, but there are other clues, too, that the meeting may mean more to Russell than to Glen, who admits he can’t remember Russell’s last name and who returns the recorded interview to him: now Russell has the only documents of their relationship, and there’s nothing to keep Glen from forgetting it.

Yeah, I’ve been there, Mr. Edelstein, and if this movie takes off as it deserves to, it’s entirely possible that guys who are hooking up will ask first whether their new friend is a Russell or a Glen. Just to be sure.

For all the proliferation of gay stories on film in recent years, there are still many seldom if ever told, and I’ve never seen anything quite like this picture. There are some laughs in Weekend, but it’s not a comedy as such; there is love, but it’s not really a love story. Certainly most gay love stories onscreen tend to high drama if not bawdy farce, neither of which is on display here. There’s some pretty heavy-duty sex, and even some body fluid, but this isn’t porn, either, and as promised, we don’t get so much as “a glimpse of cock.”**

Where Weekend is truly explicit is in its depiction of how men interact with each other when they are alone together, in the purest and most double-edged sense of that phrase. Few movies have inspired in me so much hope and so much sadness, in nearly equal measure.

*NOTE: One prominent exception to the chorus of praise the movie has received has been The New Yorker — yes, The New Yorker. I, too, would’ve hated the film Richard Brody describes — but his description bears absolutely no resemblance to the movie I saw. It’s almost as if he saw the Godard movie instead. There’s no accounting for tastes.

**You realize afterward that, while you know just what acts were engaged in, you didn’t really see anything, and in a way that’s typical of Cullen and New’s acting in general: everything seems improvised and completely natural, and yet they are acting. And of course the purpose of the body fluid here is neither gross-out comedy (as in Something about Mary’s “hair gel”) nor titillation but more of Haigh’s mirror-up-to-life realism. Certain things do happen when men get together.


William V. Madison said...

Be it noted that Weekend is not yet scheduled for release in France, and so I was unable to resort to my usual limitless source of illustrations, Cinemovies.fr.

Yohalem said...

I'm permanently single so this isn't supposed to interest me at all, but you've certainly made me eager to see it!

I'll get back to you later if (as I infer, between the lines of your review) you have spoiled it for me by hinting at a Busby-Berkeley style fantasy dance sequence in Reel 3.

William V. Madison said...

As a matter of fact, Tom Cullen does conjure memories of Esther Williams in Million-Dollar Mermaid, but I won't spoil the show by explaining precisely how.

Anonymous said...

That was awesome. I also found this funny video on Youtube by a Canadian comedian. You might want to check it out. http://youtu.be/jDEoprzTYyA

William V. Madison said...

Thanks. Your Canadian comic is cute, but not exactly groundbreaking, I think. I'm anticipating his punchlines even before he finishes the setup. Still, who am I to judge?