Monday, October 10, 2011

Andrew Haigh | Weekend

ready for love
by Douglas Messerli

Andrew Haigh (writer and director) Weekend / 2011

Andrew Haigh's film Weekend begins quite inauspiciously with a family gathering in a home in what we later discover is Nottingham, England, where Karel Reisz's 1960 working class drama, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning was filmed. The major character in Haigh's movie, Russell (Tom Cullen) at first might seem little different from Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney) in that earlier film, a working class bloke whose major activities include boozing and sex. Indeed, the first thing that happens when he appears at his friends' house—later than expected—is that Russell is handed a drink. Three males hover on the couch about the telly in much the way that straight Americans pray at the weekend alter of football and baseball games.

     In part, that is just the director's point. Russell is not very different from the married couple for whom he serves as their children's godfather. Despite that, we do sense something withheld, some reserve about him, and he soon makes a excuse about having to work early the next morning to slip out of their uneventful event.

     Instead of going home, Russell drops in at the local gay bar, where, after quickly cruising the place, he picks out a handsome youth, not so very different in appearance from himself, following him into the bathroom. The chase is not successful, and, at first, the viewer becomes convinced that Russell will go home alone or with someone else. But we later discover that, although the other young man, Glen (Chris New), had hoped to go home with someone else, the two have ended up together, having evidently pleasurable sex before settling down to the uncomfortable conversation that inevitably follows such chance encounters.

    Glen, however, is not like Russell's usual pick-ups. Before they can even began to reveal anything to each other, he has thrust a recorder in front of Russell demanding he "talk about" the sex act they have just completed. It is a sort of "art project" he insists. "Say anything that comes into your head." The self-deprecating Russell, who works as a lifeguard, is more than taken aback, uncomfortable about talking on such a subject, something Glen argues is typical of gays, who, living in a heterosexual world, seldom feel comfortable about openly discussing their sexuality, even with one another. Taping such conversations, he argues, explores "a gap that opens up, when sex comes into play, between who someone really is and who he wants to be."

     Arguing that his small film is not, primarily, a gay film, but simply a love story, Haigh often moves his camera in documentary-style shots to give his love story a kind of naturalistic quality. Yet the questions Glen poses, which, in turn, engage Russell throughout the three days of their short affair, are distinctly gay issues and their discussions are directly related to 1960s art films. Is gay life really different from straight life? Russell argues, no, that it is simply a matter of two people coming together, and, as he increasingly grows to love Glen becomes transfixed by the idea of a more-or-less permanent relationship. Despite the ridiculously short time he knows Glen, the idea of this man being someone permanent in his life seems to grow daily as they meet privately for sex and drugs, and publically with Glen's friends. At first Glen purposely lies to Russell, but finally admits that on Sunday is planning to leave for the US for two years to study art.

    Against Russell's gradual "coming out," so to speak, to the idea of a long-term gay relationship, Glen argues that gays are habitually trying to imitate straights, that marriage is just a way of denying what is different in their lives, their open and sometimes abandoned sexuality. For Glen all socialized behavior pushes the individual toward what he describes as a life in "concrete." a life living locked in set behavior. Even though we perceive that he has been terribly hurt by the failure of an earlier relationship, he insists that he didn't really care that his mate cheated, just that he just hated that he lied.

    Much of the film, to its credit, deals with the awkward little things—the dishware one has chosen, the clothes one puts on his back—that any "couple," must assimilate in order to discover someone else. But just as Russell perceives, for the first time perhaps in his life, that he is "ready" for love, so does Glen increasingly pull away, although we can see that in doing so he is putting himself in a corner that is worse than a concrete bunker. The problem with Glen's riffs is that most of them are just hot air, which one might easily juxtapose with Russell's repeated baths in hot water. The desired purity of the one is faced with the literal consumption and disappearance of the other.

     On the day of Glen's departure, Russell has promised to attend a birthday party for his god-daughter at the house where the film began. Observing his sad and almost haggard look, his married friend queries him about what is wrong. Russell steers the conversation away, suggesting it's just a gay thing, but his friend fires back that he never has discussed his sexual life. I was struck by the comment. Only a few days earlier, at lunch with straight friends, the woman, an art critic, commented that although several of her gay artist friends were very close to her and had been friends for years, few of them ever spoke of their sexual lives, as if somehow that was a territory no straight person could ever enter.

     I laughed, suggesting that Howard and I might be perfectly willing to discuss anything, everything, but that since we had been together now for nearly 42 years, it probably would not be very interesting. In the movie, Russell finally opens up, if just a little, to describe Glen and his feelings about him. As in the film Notting Hill, where Will Thacker (Hugh Grant) chases down Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) as she is about leave the country—a film actually referenced in Russell and his friend's conversation—the two rush off to the train station to see Glen.

     Like all lovers, Russell and Glen briefly argue, but in the end, kiss and make up in public—a first for the shy and less effusive Russell. Yet the film does not end happily, as Glen enters the train and is swept off, leaving Russell with a truly broken heart as he returns to his apartment—shot on the very spot where Albert Finney stood alone at the end of Saturday Night, Sunday Morning.

Los Angeles, October 9, 2011

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