Most romantic movies are so determined to chart the course of a love story—how boy meets girl leads to happily or unhappily ever after—that they miss the intensity and import of beginnings. But the British writer-director-editor Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011), like its closest American predecessor, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995), lingers on the initial sparks of an erotic and emotional connection. As a one-night stand turns into something more, the film captures a truth most others only imply: to meet someone new, not least a potential partner, is also to rethink who you are, an invitation to shape and refine the self you wish to be. As one of the protagonists puts it: “You become this blank canvas.”
The eventful forty-eight-hour period of Weekend begins when Russell (Tom Cullen), a reserved young man who works as a lifeguard in an English Midlands city and lives alone in a high-rise council flat, heads to a Friday night party at a friend’s house; the guests are jovial but, unlike Russell, straight and mostly paired off. Making excuses, he leaves early, and stops at a gay club for a few more drinks and a chance to pick up a guy on the dance floor or in the urinal line. The next morning, he wakes up next to Glen (Chris New), who had initially deflected his advances, and as they sit in bed, sipping coffee, tongue-tied morning-after awkwardness gives way before our eyes to genuine curiosity and attraction.
From the moment Glen whips out a tape recorder and asks Russell to describe the previous night’s events, it’s clear the two are nothing like each other. The recording is for an art project, Glen explains, premised on his belief that sex presents opportunities for self-knowledge: it exposes the gap between who someone is and who they want to be, and perhaps even illuminates why that gap exists. Trying to recount the wary circling and drunken groping that brought them together, Russell, gentle and self-effacing, gets visibly embarrassed, which only encourages Glen’s sarcastic line of questioning. But their push-pull dynamic is not so much combative as complementary, wryly amused, and we see even in this early scene, shot in nervy, watchful long takes, how each man stirs and intrigues the other, challenges his assumptions and defenses. Glen’s prodding forces Russell to consider questions he has conditioned himself to ignore; Russell’s diffidence melts Glen’s protective cynicism and brings out his latent sweetness and vulnerability.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that, from this point on, almost every scene in the film feels pivotal, momentous, in much the way that the characters in this two-hander experience their growing attraction. As the weekend unfolds, text messages are exchanged, displays of interest and affection reciprocated. Split-second decisions carry enormous weight; small gestures mean the world. Glen shows up at the swimming pool to meet Russell after work; Russell insists on giving him a ride on his bicycle. Glen invites Russell to a night out with friends, then ditches them for an impromptu detour to a carnival for bumper cars and cotton candy.
Character-driven dramas are not supposed to make a show of backstory, but in the genre of the blossoming romance—focused on two people for whom the rest of the world has fallen away, and who are hungry to know everything about each other—there is nothing more natural than exposition. Much of Weekend is devoted to defining these characters—or rather to watching how they define themselves—in streams of free-flowing but perfectly calibrated talk, and in a few candid, tender sex scenes.
A gifted writer with an ear for naturalistic dialogue and a shrewd sense of structure, Haigh embeds several discoveries along the way—most crucially, the catch that defines the film’s time frame and immediately lends its meandering conversations a heightened urgency: Glen is leaving for the States on Sunday for a two-year art program. We also learn that Russell, an orphan, grew up in several foster homes, and that Glen’s brash, brittle exterior (“I don’t do boyfriends”) probably has to do with a painful betrayal. But it’s a testament to Haigh’s skill and maturity that Weekend doesn’t hinge on simple plot points, on will-they-won’t-they suspense, or on a late twist that reveals an unexpected connection between the protagonists. What truly matters here is the vivid sense of two young men going about thoroughly ordinary lives, neither fully satisfied nor exactly depressed (“Are you happy?” Glen asks Russell; “I’m fine,” he responds), engaged in the day-to-day drama of figuring out who they are, in public and in private.
If a film as unassuming as Weekend can feel profound, even downright revelatory, that may be because the genre of the gay romance has never really had the chance to mature. For better and worse, straight screen romances have always reflected the gender and sexual attitudes of their times. Gay love stories were, for much of the last century, nonexistent or synonymous with tragedies of the closet. Post-Stonewall ideas about gay representation are best summed up in Vito Russo’s influential book The Celluloid Closet (1981), a work of criticism as activism that spoke to the hunger of gay audiences to see some semblance of themselves on-screen and to push back against years of vilification.
As gay liberation took root, the most prominent gay films were sincere romantic dramas like Making Love and Personal Best (both 1982), which strove to validate same-sex relationships by presenting them in a nonthreatening light; the films got even more sober as AIDS entered the picture (1990’s Longtime Companion, 1993’s Philadelphia). Gay characters now turn up regularly in Hollywood movies as comic sidekicks or diversity tokens, but usually take center stage only if they are martyrs (2005’s Brokeback Mountain, 2008’s Milk). In the indie sphere, the brief flowering of the New Queer Cinema of the early nineties, defined by such oppositional, polemical voices as Todd Haynes and Gregg Araki, identified a new niche audience. Gay-themed movies, festivals, and distributors all proliferated, capitalizing on the epiphany that gay films, and in particular gay romances, could be as formulaic as straight ones. The trend was sufficiently pronounced to earn the nickname “gaysploitation” and be spoofed in a 2001 short film, Jeffrey’s Hollywood Screen Trick (the title conflates several emblematic gay rom-coms).
Weekend is the exception that proves the rule: as gay experiences have become more varied and as the conversation about being gay has evolved, gay films have largely failed to keep up. And while it’s easy to identify and celebrate markers of progress—social acceptance, legal recognition—the template of the coming-out story hasn’t proved sufficiently elastic to deal with more insidious forms of discrimination and alienation. While Haigh never turns his characters into mouthpieces, Russell and Glen to an extent embody conflicting impulses—assimilation versus separatism—and Weekend shows that both positions have their attractions, and that both exert a toll. Glen, who prides himself on his difference, lashes out at homophobic insults (some of which he provokes) and is sensitive to entrenched biases as well as perceived slights. Russell is out to his circle of straight friends but remains coy, keeping them at a distance and often resorting to half-truths and evasions. He talks about being at ease with himself behind closed doors (though Haigh’s deft thumbnail sketches of Russell at home, taking baths, smoking pot, and staring out the window, are subtly melancholic) but admits to feeling exposed on the street—and it’s clear from the ambient homophobia (boozy breeders on the train, taunts and wolf whistles) that they exist in what Glen would call a heteronormative world.
Haigh’s microbudget first feature, Greek Pete (2009), starred London gay escorts as versions of themselves within a fictional framework. These documentary elements inspired the unadorned observational style of Weekend, which he filmed mainly in long takes and with minimal coverage. This meant entrusting his actors, who both have theater backgrounds, with the sustained ebb and flow of scenes that are highly dependent on minutely calibrated nuances—and the payoff is enormous. We’re so used to seeing dialogue-heavy scenes edited in traditional shot-countershot style that it can be startling to watch a long, leisurely interaction that allows us to fully apprehend the chemistry and the space between two people, the thrilling fact of their being in each other’s physical presence.
The provincial city in Weekend is never named, but the film was shot in Nottingham, in many of the same locations as Karel Reisz’s landmark of kitchen-sink realism Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), which also spans a weekend and whose characters are likewise bristling against the social climate of their time; Glen is in some ways a modern, gay version of Albert Finney’s original angry young man. But while Haigh, thirty-seven when he made Weekend, worked his way up the ranks of British cinema—he was an assistant to Ismail Merchant and worked as an assistant editor with Ridley Scott—his sensibility has more in common with the realist tendencies of the contemporary American independent scene, in particular the naturalistic intimacy and political intent of filmmakers like Kelly Reichardt and Ramin Bahrani.
At one point in Weekend, Glen talks about the potential audience for his audio art project: straights won’t care, he assumes, because “it’s not about their world.” It’s hard not to sense here Haigh’s reflexive anxiety. The rules of the marketplace dictate that Weekend be considered a “gay film,” a designation that generally refers to the sexuality of a film’s maker, subject matter, and target demographic. Critics were quick to emphasize the universal appeal of Haigh’s film, one of the best-reviewed releases of 2011, and to praise its ability to speak across lines of gender and sexual orientation. That’s certainly true, but it would do this wise, lovely, enormously moving film a disservice to deny that it is also very much rooted in a generational experience of feeling different and finding one’s place in the world. Or to put it another way: it’s both timeless and specific, a story about falling in love that is also a tale of identity and self-definition, and all the more resonant for taking place between two gay men.
Dennis Lim is the editor of Moving Image Source and a contributor to the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.