Two men, best friends and lovers for two days
Three cheers for Andrew Haigh and his stars Tom Cullen and Chris New, who achieve the unusual by taking mumblecore style in an intelligent young Brit gay setting and turn it into something touching and intelligent and real and possessed of wider ranging implications.
In this 48-hour time-span two-hander set in a nondescript Nottingham, Russell (Cullen) picks up Glen (New) at a gay bar after a party at his straight best friend’s house. An “art project” taped interview of Russ by Glen after a night of drugs and sex leads to more sex, more drugs, and more conversation, and a bond that goes beyond the ordinary. Glen says “I don’t do boyfriends,” but admits Russ would “be an awesome” one. The catch is, Glen admits in parting that day, later, that in one day he is going to Portland, Oregon to take an arts course that lasts two years, but he really hopes to stay in the States indefinitely. In other words, after tomorrow, he and Russ won’t be seeing each other, perhaps, ever again. But they wind up spending a lot of the next day together, and Russ, the “incurable romantic,” as Glen dubs him, has to show up at the railway station to say goodbye.
In some ways this parallels Barry Jenins’ African American, heterosexual, film, Medicine for Melancholy (2008), a similarly assured and intimate small film about a couple that for some reason can’t be together except for a couple of days. But the difference is that Jenkins’ couple spend most of their time wandering around in San Francisco and discovering and revealing different spaces. It doesn’t much matter where Glen and Russ are, in what bedroom or bar. They are simply together, and the camera rarely strays, staying in tight on them. In both stories, though, the fact that the two people aren’t going to be together again intensifies and focuses their encounter.
Glen is outspoken and strong-minded. He seems to start the conversation. Russ is less flamboyant, as well as an orphan who doesn’t know his real parents. He works as a lifeguard at a big swimming pool. He’s also less an intellectual though he keeps a detailed journal recounting gay coming-out stories, apparently because he doesn’t feel he has one of his own. He is handsome but modest, thinks Glen when he first sees him “out of my league.” As time goes on it’s clear they’re both very much in each other’s league and besides being attracted to each other have a great deal to say to each other.
It is hard to believe a lot of the time that Cullen and New are not just being themselves. Their improvised discussions about homosexuality are passionate, personal, and sincere. Their feelings for each other seem real. The sex, shown with some explicitness as well as restraint, also seems real. The camera almost seems intrusive. However, the two men observe tact and taste and manners in talking to each other, which helps keep the proceedings, however intimate, from seeming embarrassing. A certain amount of gay-friendliness on the part of audience members is, however, necessary.
One could argue that the film reenforces the public impression that gay men do a lot of drugs. Russ fires up a pipe before going to the first party, and downs shots at his straight friend’s behest too. Russ and Glen do a lot of coke and drink on their last night together. Haigh has had to protest that “this is not a film about sex and drugs.” The drug use is only meant to be recreational, just a a cultural, social thing, an aspect of the film’s honesty and realism and Haigh’s desire to be specific.
What’s best about Weekend is that while Russ and Glen are finding each other in an intense and satisfying way, they’re having good conversations, ones in which they explore the difficulties of growing up gay and living in a straight world — and all sorts of more universal problems of existing in the world that they may have had to face earlier because they didn’t fit into the mainstream. They seem to be exploring these topics for each other, not for the audience, but in such a personal way that whether you’re gay or straight, if you’re paying attention you reconsider these issues. How very true, also, as these men agree, that liberal straights are fine with your being gay, as long as you don’t bother them much with it; and that straight sexuality is in gay men’s faces every minute, but exhibiting gayness in public remains essentially taboo. Russ and Glen even get some derisive yells as they tenderly kiss for the last time in the railway station. But this event is, appropriately, not in our face. It’s just there, to be expected.
The acting and the editing in Weekend make this a deceptively casual-looking piece of work. Cullen and New are excellent — and they give their all. Haigh is an experienced film editor whose credits include work on Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, and Kingdom of Heaven and he makes the scenes between Russ and Glen seamless and natural, naturalistic without being awkward. The style is for a small art house or festival film audience. This is a manner that is close to American mumblecore. But that’s somewhat deceptive. (Perhaps happily, many in the audience won’t have heard of mumblecore anyway.). The two men aren’t mumbling and they’re not American. However, it’s not surprising that Weekend was the hit of the SXSW festival, a youthful, indie American media venue, where it was out of competition but won an audience award. Audiences are lining up around the block at New York’s IFC Center to see this film, tipped off by rave reviews, including one by A.O. Scott, chief film critic of theNew York Times. who calls it an “astonishingly self-assured, unassumingly profound second feature,” which addresses “the complex entanglements of love and sex honestly, without sentiment or cynicism and with the appropriate mixture of humor, sympathy and erotic heat.” As Scott points out, Weekend eschews a glossy setting to provide a perspective on love more complex than Hollywood can quite manage these days. Despite its art-house limitations, we haven’t heard the last of Weekendor of this director.
For this gay man, and hopefully for audiences generally, Weekend is a moving experience too. This is a love story and love stories have universal aspects. But let’s not make the mistake of saying, as straight people did ad nauseum about Brokeback Mountain, that in this film being gay is beside the point. It is the point: a good story is specific and describes its own world or it is nothing. And the best parts of Weekend are the ones where it specifically addresses gay experience and gets it right.
This was one of the few times outside a festival I’ve watched a movie where literally every single seat was filled (2:45 in the afternoon). This Sundance Selects release scored an estimated $25,200 gross from its lone IFC New York engagement, and Sundance is so “thrillled” with this intense audience interest they’re expanding through the major markets in the next two weeks.
In various festivals since SXSW, Weekend is out on DVD & blu-ray 19th March 2012.
DIRECTOR: ANDREW HAIGH
STARS: TOM CULLEN, CHRIS NEW
RUNTIME: 96 MINUTES