An earlier version of this essay appeared in Film Comment magazine (May/June 2010).
Update: Weekend will be playing at IFC Center starting Friday, Sept 23rd (open-run).
Update 2: Director Andrew Haigh will appear in-person at IFC Center on Monday, Sept 26th, where he’ll introduce a rare screening of Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), whose influence on Weekend is touched on below. Presented by Queer/Art/Film.
THIS SOPHOMORE BREAKOUT by British director Andrew Haigh dramatizes a deceptively simple conceit. Working-class Russell (Tom Cullen) goes cruising at a Midlands gay bar and wakes up next to Glen (Chris New), who’s flying stateside the next day to get his MFA. They decide to meet up again (why not?) and a one-night stand becomes a lost weekend. There’s lots of drinking and some recreational drug use. There’s a trip to the carnival and a goodbye party with Glen’s closest friends. There are explicit but unsensational scenes of casual sex. But mostly there are long and winding conversations. And then suddenly, unexpectedly, things aren’t so casual anymore.
Like the brief relationship it portrays, Weekend’s gut-punch emotional impact depends on just how unexpected its final trajectory is. Revisiting locations from and making references to Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the 1960 classic of kitchen-sink realism, Weekend starts off within stomping distance of its predecessors’ caustic character studies and downbeat social determinism. Then its pitch starts to build, slowly but with geometric progression, climaxing in an affective register that’s so tear-jerkingly romantic it might seem to come from another film entirely. The near-final scene could have been a perfunctory cliche of formulaic love stories if it weren’t so entirely earned by its talented young leads, so seamlessly integrated by its director, so inevitably, devastatingly, perfect.
So I’m worried (really, quite anxious) not to oversell this unassuming little film, to create expectations when it depends so much on surprise. It’s not a matter of spoilers. There is a last-act revelation in which Russell and Glen discover they’re connected in a way that neither had realized, but it’s not important really. The surprise of this film is just how ambitious it is: how unhurried its characterizations are, surreptitiously setting up backstory that it patiently waits to pay off; how little self-regard its actors betray, never playing the subtext in their emotionally complex performances; how totally the script avoids spelling out its themes, staging a philosophical dialogue between its two leads that is so unpretentious, so organic to their characters, that you don’t quite realize how exactingly worked out it is until long after you’ve left the theater.
HAD I KNOWN Andrew Haigh during the production of Weekend, I’d have thought he was making a huge mistake. His stylistic decision to film exclusively in flowing master shots was effectively a choice to abdicate huge amounts of control to his paired leads, both of whom were making their big-screen debut. Normally when a scene doesn’t work, a director has options: he can change the tempo, combine elements from multiple takes, inflect line readings through visual emphasis and counterpoint, fabricate interactions through false eyeline matches. But Weekend would rest irrevocably on the sustained chemistry of Cullen and New. On some level that was always the case–the whole film is a romantic pas de duex–but editing would have allowed Haigh to pull the boys apart in order to put them back together. Master-shot sequences are like high-security safes or nuclear warheads: they require all parties to turn their keys at the same moment.
But there are advantages to the aesthetic: the speed, mobility and intimacy afforded by the small skeleton crew, the enforced discipline of having to make it work in real life instead of cheating it in post. Whatever the logic behind the gamble, it paid off in spades. Cullen’s Russell and New’s Glen are incredibly controlled, understated and emotionally layered characterizations; they’d work as stand-alone performances if they had to play opposite telephone poles.
CULLEN PLAYS RUSSELL as disarmingly guileless without being cutesy or falsely naive. He manages to be so open and emotionally transparent yet somehow elusively mysterious. We first see him interacting with his mates at a childhood friend’s house party. He seems like the gentlest and most well-adjusted boy you could ever hope to meet. “I got Lois the sweetest little present,” he says of his goddaughter, flashing a smile that lights up the frame just before he flicks a Bic that lights up his bowl. That he’s high as a kite is part of the comic counterpoint that keeps his intense earnestness from feeling cloying. But it’s mostly in his line deliveries. A drunk friend who’s stolen Russell’s hat asks, “How do I look?” “You look lovely,” comes the answer, without a hint of irony. “Very nice.” It’s just a throwaway moment but the way it comes together is so strangely, inexplicably moving.
Your impression of Russell as emotionally unguarded and enviably grounded is qualified by his late arrival and early departure. He uses his job as a lifeguard to explain them away (had to work late, got to get up early) but neither is true. The film opens on him milling about his house–lingering in the bathtub, staring quietly out the window–and it now continues with him heading to a gay bar. Disco lights strobing, he knocks back some drinks and cruises the room (followed in a bouncing rack-focus and subtly sloppy camerawork). After a quick tour, he heads to the dance floor. “I’ve got so much love to give,” blares on the stereo as he starts to dance: stiffly at first, then closing his eyes, we see him trying to get lost in the music. The camera lingers on his face as we try to puzzle out its secrets.
A FEW SHORT scenes later he’s offering instant coffee to a boy who had brushed off his advances earlier that night: Glen. They seem like a terrible match. Every line of Glen’s dialogue has an affect of carefully distanced sarcasm. As he gets ready to leave, he insists on claiming his “pound of flesh”: an audio interview for his art project. Pushing Russell to narrate their evening together though it clearly makes Russell uncomfortable, Glen repeatedly cuts in with shock-effect interruptions (“Then I wanted to lick your pits”) and aggressively condescending questions: “Are you even out to your friends?” Russell is out, actually, though we may have wondered ourselves. Unsatisfied, Glen presses on, determined to expose some sexual hypocrisy or self-loathing contempt.
The camera holds on the exchange in near-static medium close-ups; the frame is just barely large enough to contain both their faces at once, which gives Haigh the ability to shift focus with the subtlest panning and tilting. Russell’s reluctant monologue is intensely self-conscious, almost painful to listen to. But while he and Glen are so intensely focused on his words, their faces become sublimely transparent. Russell meets each provocation with beguiling awkwardness and disarming sincerity (“I just thought we had a really nice time”), and we watch Glen’s carefully cultivated posture start to wither. He can’t help but be moved by this and is made to feel ashamed. His eyes start to glaze over, then abruptly dart away, as if he’s realized how helplessly vulnerable he’s been rendered. Glen doesn’t “do boyfriends,” he later explains, but in spite of himself Russell has gotten under his skin, and in that one moment, years of hurt are made manifest. New has done nothing so far but play up Glen’s noxious charm, but with a single reaction he’s made us feel for his character as much as Russell.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that these are some of the most beautifully revelatory close-ups I have ever seen.
WEEKEND IS SO delicately lyrical and intuitively direct that it almost comes as a shock to realize, upon reflection, just how philosophically symbolic the characters’ positions are: two illustrative embodiments of the assimilationist and radical schools of gay politics. Glen revels in transgression: rearranging Russell’s fridge-magnets to spell faggot, eagerly provoking homophobic reactions in public so he can strike back at them with arguments memorized in Intro Queer Theory. Most of his targets, of course, are fair: the “boy meets girl” hegemony we’re steadily fed from birth, the background radiation of gay-baiting violence and casual cruelty, the sexless persona gay men accept so as not to offend. (“Gays never talk about sex. Straight people talk about sex all the time but with gays it’s just cheap innuendo.”) Yet we see how emotionally deadening it is to be so relentlessly embattled, to turn a gesture of tenderness like holding hands into an act of aggression.
And with a symmetry that’s somehow not schematic, Russell embodies the parallel trap. He’s so eager not to alienate anyone that he neurotically conceals and downplays his sexuality even when he doesn’t have to—even when his reticence itself alienates. His friend, more than accepting, asks questions about his romantic life only to be misdirected and rebuffed. “We never talk about this kind of stuff,” Russell later explains when pressed on the issue. “I know,” the friend responds, visibly hurt by the response. It’s an amazing inversion that makes the psychic costs of our schizophrenically (un)accepting era tangibly real. “I’m not embarrassed,” Russell explains to Glen. “I’m not ashamed. And I don’t want to be straight.”
But: homophobia has a radioactive half-life. I can’t think of another film about gay boys that so totally spoke to my own generational experience of being queer. And yet Weekend is not a “gay movie,” made to be slotted in a special-interest demographic ghetto. As Glen says of his own art project: “The straights will go see pictures of war and refugees. But gay sex? Fuck it.”
Weekend is a work of surpassing emotional insight and artistic accomplishment. It is a film about (yes) the human condition—and already one of the best of the year.