Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig, the costars, cowriters, and codirectors of “Nights and Weekends,” spend a good part of their film naked. At the film’s outset, while in a long-distance relationship, James and Mattie enter the former’s Chicago apartment and promptly make love on the floor; toward the end of the film, after a year and an off-screen break-up, they fleetingly try something similar in a hotel in New York. In between, the film often pauses to ponder the many levels of these characters’ self-exposure: showering, sitting on the can, dressing and undressing themselves and each other, critically scrutinizing themselves in mirrors and photographs.
Shot in an unflatteringly fleshy digital video, “Nights and Weekends” is often uncomfortably close, an inquest into (or even postmortem of) the life of a couple. But, as Mattie at one point quips, “A couple of what?” Even in their days of romance, small squabbles and controlling tendencies inevitably arise. At their most intimate — eating together, practicing trust falls, and engaging in frank conversations about their past love-lives or whether either has said “I love you” and not fully meant it — there is always an undercurrent of uncertainty, as if the emotional nakedness that one demands of the other requires a minute-to-minute anticipation of each person’s needs.
For the first portion of the film, this back-and-forth between bullshitting and bickering is light and comical, the natural vicissitudes of a dense concentration of “time together.” First, Mattie visits James in Chicago for the weekend, then he comes to New York, and in each episode there is a slow disintegration from horny giddiness to emotional caution and insecurity about the future. What if this love ends? How will each remember the other in years to come when they’re busy having children with other people? “Do you ever think about that?” Mattie asks a taciturn James. “What’s going to be your sound bite for the next person?” It is a question that anticipates both the end of their current relationship and how it will be perceived, rationalized, and remembered — an acknowledgement that, in some sense, the nature of their bond has already passed into that of a performance or ritual, no longer a spontaneous “present us” so much as a lost and eulogized “past us.”
A year later, when the couple has split up and a newly unscruffy and businesslike James visits Mattie while on a trip to New York, the couple gets a chance to restage this relationship — their feelings and attraction for one another, as well as their insecurities about their identity as “a couple of what,” still worn openly on their sleeves. James dodges calls from his girlfriend back in Chicago even as he makes plans to hang out with Mattie, who tries to act naturally while neurotically fretting over her body and wardrobe, and screaming silently to herself in a bathroom mirror.
Mattie is less confident in this reunion than is the terse, dudeish James, and so Gerwig’s gutsy, expressive performance really comes to the fore in this latter part of the film. Swanberg’s James, on the other hand, is aloof, laidback, and slightly manipulative in a somewhat familiar “guy” manner, his own feelings left quite literally in darkness by the end of the film.
Mattie is the more unique and involving character, and her fluctuating emotions always remain just below her unstable public facade. This makes Gerwig’s turn the ideal quarry of a raw style of shooting familiar from many decades of American independent filmmaking, from Cassavetes’ “Shadows” and Peter Emmanuel Goldman’s “Echoes of Silence” to Bujalski’s “Mutual Appreciation” and Cannon/Lerman/Cannon’s “Natural Causes.” But if “Nights and Weekends” distinguishes itself from other films of its kind (and of its admittedly white, urban, yipster demographic), it is because of its surprisingly structured depiction of this relationship and its many private rituals and performances, which the film’s unforgiving style continually strips bare.