Criterion Review: #622 WEEKEND (dir. Andrew Haigh) 2011
Glen: Well, you know what it’s like when you first sleep with someone you don’t know?
Glen: It’s… you, like, become this blank canvas and it gives you an opportunity to project onto that canvas who you want to be. That’s what’s interesting because everybody does that.
Russell: So do you think that I did it?
Glen: ‘Cause you did. Well, what happens is while you’re projecting who you want to be… this gap opens up between who you want to be and who you really are. And in that gap, it shows you what’s stopping you becoming who you want to be.
THE FILM: Few important films are as unassuming as Andrew Haigh’s second feature, Weekend. Weekend is not explicitly about a movement, nor is it an “issue” film or told with a palpable agenda beyond the healing powers of simple intimacy. With an invisible budget and a tiny cast, it distills the plight of millions into two scruffy conduits who flirt and fuck and otherwise explore each other in order to learn how to fit into a world that doesn’t always seem to want them in it.
Haigh — who served as an assistant editor on the post-millennial movies of Ridley Scott before he decided to step behind the camera, himself — is an artist and not a prophet, and so it’s unlikely that he could anticipate the pivotal space his film has come to occupy since its release. On the other hand, the unnerving focus and casual desperation that’s woven into the sinews of every frame suggest that everyone involved in Weekend was fully convinced of the film’s urgency from the very beginning.
Russell (Tom Cullen) has tip-toed out of the closet, but he’s entirely unsure as to where he should go from there. He’s a commonly handsome sort, comfortable only in the confines of his generic 14th-floor Nottingham flat. Russell’s weekend (hey!) begins with a reluctant trip to a friend’s party (Haigh’s camera, following Russell from behind at a distance, practically pushes him towards the door), where it’s immediately clear that Russell’s inability to assimilate into hetero-normative adult life has socially paralyzed him. His friends speak to him as if he’s fallen off the face of the earth, unable to recognize that he’s simply retracted into himself. Leaving the party, Russell transitions into his other life, which is kept completely separate. He rides the bus downtown for a solo venture to a local gay club, Haigh rendering public transportation as the means by which Russell is ferried between his two distinct worlds, imperceptibly crossing that intractable divide in full view. At the club, Russell will transform into the object of Glen’s (Chris New) settled affections, kickstarting a chatty 48-hour romance that recalls the rhythms of Before Sunset, but cares less for how its temporary lovers remember each other than how they learn to remember themselves.
It’s an elegant if pointedly ordinary beginning to a modern romantic drama, Haigh unafraid to accentuate the unexceptional nature of Russell’s first encounter with Glen. In the morning, as the two men lounge around in their skivvies, Glen begins to interview Russell for an art project, and Haigh records the interrogation in a series of intimate and oppressively confrontational long takes, refusing to let Russell dodge any of the frank questions that Glen asks for us. Russell is uncomfortable on the spot, his sexuality compelling him to hide from the world like one of the unfortunates in a Brontë novel — he understands what he is, but can’t fathom how to be it (the film accentuates Russell’s sexual apprehension by loosely conflating it with the character’s orphanhood). Russell feels watched through narrowed eyes as soon as he opens his front door, the surveillance camera that stands watch on the lawn of his flat just another mechanism of judgement, binding him to his otherness. Haigh’s deceptively casual direction so fluidly articulates Russell’s timid existence that the film’s remarkable actors are free to disappear into their characters — as a result, their chatter never feels overwritten or burdened with articulating anything that these two men wouldn’t believably say to one another. No singles, no close-ups, Haigh simply steers Russell and Glen towards each other and observes the alchemic response.
As Russell and Glen spend Saturday night and Sunday morning together, stretching their tryst as taut as it can go, Haigh coats their weekend in such a perfectly organic veneer that the film’s more obvious machinations are nearly rendered invisible. Weekend is a contemporary romance with a ticking clock and a fierce undercurrent of poetic lyricism, a film that flirts with a grey neo-realism but never feels like bullshit — it’s a film about being seen that never feels as if it’s being watched.
There’s often a great rift between who we are and who we allow ourselves to be, and reconciling the two can be among the most difficult and dangerous adventures of a lifetime. “Be yourself” has become such a flat and flippant piece of reflexive advice, but — in certain cases — you might as well be telling someone to journey to Mordor or bring opera to the jungles of Peru. It’s not easy, and Weekend doesn’t pretend that it is. It doesn’t rely on platitudes and it opts for grace rather than grand gestures, it merely suggests that other people provide us with the best opportunities to learn about ourselves… to place our personas in their proper context. (Spoiler Alert) The film’s understated final scene speaks epitomizes this idea in a most affecting way, Russell finally listening to the sound of his own voice, listening to a recording that was only made possible through his open-hearted encounter with Glen.
Weekend processes universal ideas through a very particular perspective, its cultural specificity serving to ennoble the eminently human issues at its heart. Haigh is careful never to minimize the unique challenges facing its characters, but Russell and Glen are such fully dimensional characters that their shared sexual orientation threatens to define them only at their weakest moments.
While Russell and Glen grapple with their place in the world, Weekend begins to function as a meta-narrative about the evolving role of LGBT cinema at a time in which queer representations are as ubiquitous as they are narrow. We still live in an age in which films are comfortable using gay characters but uninterested in simply portraying them — mainstream cinema offers Justin Long’s fauxmosexual antics and (Valentine’s Day spoiler) Bradley Cooper playing gay as a plot twist, while movies that don’t regard queer lifestyles as a punchline are relegated to niche film festivals and — if they’re lucky — small theatrical releases (Ira Sachs’ forthcoming Keep the Lights On comes to mind). To paraphrase the Dennis Lim essay that’s included with Criterion’s release of the film, Weekend is perched at the tension between separatism and assimilation, and Russell and Glen are forced to define who they are based upon where they land on that spectrum. What makes Weekend such a pivotal film in the canon of new queer cinema is that it refuses to solve that tension for either its characters or its audience, instead trusting itself to the notion that it’s impossible for someone to find their place in the world by themselves.
THE TRANSFER: As is expected from such a recent film shot in digital HD, Weekend looks phenomenal on Blu-Ray. Detail and color are the biggest victories here, with the film’s calculated depth-of-field as vividly expressive as Haigh’s direction requires it to be. Perfection.
THE EXTRAS: For such a recent film, Criterion’s edition of Weekend is surprisingly stuffed with strong supplemental material. From the top, a 30-minute feature in which Haigh and his collaborators unpack the film is a great first step to engage with the film beyond the text. It plays like an EPK, but it’s smarter and more candid than anything you would find on a studio disc. “The Sex Scenes” is a 6-minute bit in which Haigh discusses his approach to the sex scenes (duh). It’s interesting to hear him discuss not only how he decided to depict the sex, but when (this might be the first time that a director has declared “Everyone has had cum on their belly” on the Criterion release of their film… I have to go back through my Ozu discs to double-check). Criterion has also included some raw audition footage, which is fun, and suggests that the casting process was a gobsmackingly obvious one. On-set photographers Quinnford & Scout are the subjects of an artily affected 7-minute video essay on their style, and how their contributions helped determine the tenor of the film. Finally, Criterion has included two of Haigh’s short films, the most recent of which makes it abundantly clear that Weekend is simply the coronation of a filmmaking career that’s been building towards greatness for some time.
THE BEST BIT: It’s a toss-up, but my favorite thing here is probably Chris New’s personal video footage from the set. It’s 8.5 minutes of candid stuff from the set, hilarious and illuminating, it’s both the most personable glimpse at how the film was made and also the most explicitly informative.
THE ARTWORK: The blunt but dreamy cover art is a gorgeous riff on the film’s original one-sheet, a cool modern (pointedly geometric) design that beautifully illustrates the movie’s intimate romance. The booklet included with the disc is especially lovely, using the perfect on-set photography of Quinnford & Scout to punctuate Dennis Lim’s essay.
THE ARBITRARY VERDICT: 90 / 100
Fred Eerdekens - Forever. Reflective material, light projector, variable dimensions (2005)