By Lisa Rosman
Press Play Contributor
Romance has always been the ideal film genre, and not just because its inherent glamour translates so beautifully onto a big screen, glittering and infinite in the dark. Really, all the best movies function like the best drugs, artfully coaxing you into core revelations about your life from a distance that lessens the sting you’d normally feel. It’s why so many people let themselves cry only at the movies.
And we all know romance is the most brilliantly chemically engineered drug of all time.
But such transcendence requires honesty without a grinding bottom line, and that’s harder and harder to come by in a climate afflicted by instant gratification and ever-higher stakes. What pass for intimacy are too often rapid, unearned disclosures; what pass for love are shared, inherited agendas; what pass for cinema romances are cynical variations on a tired-and-untrue formula.
Which is all to say that love stories blow these days — both off and on screen. As a movie reviewer, I used to clamor to cover the newest romances even as I feigned disdain, but in the last few years, they’ve stimulated my gag reflexes more than my tear ducts. Whether we’re soldiering through the Nancy Meyer interior porn fantasies, Judd Apatow’s socially conservative, sexually libertarian comic romances, the endless parade of Anistonian peanut brittles, or the sad-sack indie films that serve mostly as a vehicle for sad-sack indie soundtracks, one thing remains consistent: these romances are tin-eared and saccharine, and, well, they just blow.
Happily, Weekend, a Brit-born film billed as a “(sort of) love story between two guys over a cold weekend in October,” proves a very significant exception. In fact, it may be the only real romance I’ve seen on a big screen in years. Certainly it’s the only good one.
British in the very best sense of the word, Weekend is a film that neither showboats nor panders, so you must be fully receptive to register its particular brand of gently paced, adamantly phrased acuity. When I first saw it back in June, I missed some of its potency since I was accompanied by a person whom I’d just begun dating. This is highly ill-advised for a movie critic, at least this one, for we were so agog that the movie mostly served as a smart, sexy echo of what was transpiring between us. But when I saw it again last week in the cold light of day — four months into my romance (a do-or-die relationship checkpoint) and at the extremely sobering hour of 10:40 A.M. — the heft of this film’s subtle wisdom finally landed.
It begins as Russell, a 20-something lifeguard with sweet, darting eyes and the particular stoop of a tall man angling for invisibility, prepares for a night out. As he scrubs himself in the bath and smokes a bowl, he wears the blank expression of someone well acquainted with if not resigned to his solitude. This solitude carries into the next scene, in which he too-politely fields questions at a house party comprised of straight couples, though he clearly knows everyone there quite well. It’s only when he ducks out to a gay club that he begins to animate, catapulting himself onto the dance floor with a determination that betrays the degree to which he’s had to steel himself to even enter the arena. He locks eyes with a cute, shorter boy who quickly rebuffs him, then reverts to a shy deference when a less appealing bloke comes onto him like gangbusters. Talk about method cinema: just when Russell’s polite quiet grows intolerable, we cut to him solemnly bringing two cups of morning coffee back to his bed where the cute boy from the night before is already sitting up, nervy and bemused. “You brushed your teeth!” he says. “Now my mouth still tastes of cock and bum while yours tastes of mint.” Russell’s relieved bemusement is ours as well.
Thus sets the dance. Where Russell is nice, Glen, as the cute boy is called, is bold. He even whips out a tape recorder and interviews Russell about the events of last night, including their initial disconnect and the ugliness of the guy who subsequently pounced. (“A troll!” Glen crows.) With a new crinkle to his eyes, Russell takes it all in stride, at least until Glen wonders aloud why Russell wouldn’t let him fuck him, who stiffly answers, “I’d thought we’d had a lovely time and I’m sorry I didn’t make the grade.” His hurt is overt.
It is in this moment that the two encounter their first opportunity to earn each other’s trust, and they handle it well — as does the film itself. For Russell’s unadulterated response cuts through Glen’s flippancy, who, despite his edgy wit, displays the rare grace necessary to be visibly humbled by another person’s emotional honesty. Russell takes note, but before we’re subjected to any remonstrations or mea culpas they may exchange, the scene shifts to the boys exchanging numbers in the hallway, neighbors passing by with a studied casualness. It’s an admirable, and characteristic, restraint on the part of writer/director Andrew Haigh suggesting that we witnesses to burgeoning romance should always be left on its margins so that we may explore our own projections. How wonderfully un-modern.
As the two spend more time together that afternoon, they subtly power-play as any two new lovers who are not immediately assuming prescribed roles do. Glen pokes at Russell’s apparent lack of ambition or sophistication with a barrage of questions about his experience with travel and art. With a surprising wiliness, Russell in turn dares Glen to ride “bucky” — to perch on the handlebars as Russell bikes them over the bridge — neatly exposing Glen’s physical timidity with an image lifted from the French New Wave. The two also begin to expose (not just disclose) themselves, a necessary and terrifying step in any real intimacy. Glen unmasks his earnestness by confiding that his art project, in which he is taping post-mortem interviews with all his tricks, is to demystify without profaning “what men do with each other in bed.”
“Of course,” he adds. “Gays will only see it because it’s about sex, and straights won’t bother.”
A little later, when Russell reveals that he grew up in foster care and does not even know his parents, Glen’s response is once again extemporaneously, jarringly honest: he grows intensely aroused, which in turn gets Russell off, no doubt wickedly sick of people’s frightened, demure pity. It’s an encounter in which their wildly divergent natures serve them.
Explicit but not tawdry, the subsequent sex scene, like all which take place in this film, takes its cues from Glen’s art project. As ordinary as Weekend often looks and seems, it is in the business of building extraordinary bridges — between writer/director Andrew Haigh and his characters, between the characters themselves, between us and the film, between the hyper-specificity of a gay, male, white, British romance and the fraught, necessary thing that is any human intimacy. And a bridge, if also difficult to construct, may be the utopian boundary between any two things.
The push-and-pull of early romance being what it is, then, it is at that moment that Glen informs Russell that the next day he will be leaving the country for two years.
Later that night, Glen and Russell duck out of Glen’s own going-away party and indulge in a coke-fueled debate about the worthiness of gay marriage. An eternally vigilant yap dog, Glen approaches the issue from both ends at once, lambasting U.K. gays for not campaigning more strenuously for marriage rights while at the same time wondering why anyone would campaign for access to that claustrophobic heterosexual institution. Russell, as usual, takes a simpler tack. Recognizing that he’s still not comfortably open about his sexuality, he marvels over the bravery required for two men to stand up in front of the world and declare their love.
It devolves from there and suddenly Russell, weepy and strung out, is calling Glen out for distancing from his emotions. He’s right. Glen’s response to betrayal, whether it’s a cheating boyfriend or gay bashing, is to abstract his pain into a political or intellectual theory — a common reaction in smart, stylish people who can whistle in the dark so cleverly that no one calls them on their bullshit. Russell, on the other hand, despite the fact that he seems more timorous, demonstrates the temerity to approach his pain head-on. He’s self-possessed enough to admit when he is upset, courageous enough to admit when he is scared. This capacity to keep it simple and true emerged earlier, when Glen’s friend slanders him to Russell, who is repelled by the lack of loyalty. Despite a background that could so easily inspire the mindset of “orphans can’t be choosy,” Russell expects friends to stick by him. Instead of settling for crumbs, he’s transformed the emotional deprivation of his childhood into a yearning for connections that aren’t just filling space, and developed the muscle to withstand the emptiness until he finds them. It’s a higher form of bravery, one rarely, if ever, celebrated onscreen or, really, in our culture. It’s the equivalent of lauding the emotional independence of an unaffiliated woman rather than dismissing her as a fucked-up cat lady.
“I know you want a relationship,” Russell now cries, to which Glen shakes his head adamantly, “I don’t want a boyfriend right now.” Overwrought, Russell retires to the bathroom to collect himself. After a second, Glen turns on the saddest, sweetest music he can find.
That’s when the purest moment of onscreen romance all year takes place, for true romance always requires hurtling past your comfort zone in the spirit of great faith. In Russell’s case, his moment of bravery is to reenter that room despite the rejection he feels; Glen’s is to tolerate the discomfort of a naked display rather than fleeing it.
There, framed by a window, they commence a kiss more tender than hungry. It’s one lit square in a dark industrial building, yellow hope drifting out into the sorrow of an urban night sky, and the contrast offers a resounding beauty even more effective in a film composed of mostly inconspicuous cinematography, the visual equivalent of that Sherwood Anderson line, “I have come to this lonely place and here is this other.”
There’s more, of course — with a film like this, there’s always more, both within and without its unique city limits. But I’ll leave you to excavate that while a part of me lingers, hankie clenched, in the rich, rewarding darkness of the IFC Theater that day. Grateful for the confirmation that my lover and I were not crazy to continue on our own uncharted path despite our radically different natures. Grateful for the reminder that ambiguity — for, not surprisingly, this is the final note of this film — is the most we can expect from any romance that we improvise rather than inherit, embrace rather than enforce. Grateful to surrender to a movie so worth its while.
Lisa Rosman writes the indieWire film blog New Deal Sally and has reviewed film for Marie Claire, Time Out New York, Salon.com, LA Weekly, Us Weekly, Premiere and Flavorpill.com, where she was film editor for five years. She has also commentated for the Oxygen Channel, TNT, the IFC and NY1. You can follow Lisa on twitter here.