Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski wonders, with the Dowager Countess of Grantham, "What is a week-end?"
Russell: "Do you feel safe?" Glen: "No…this is a bad idea."
Weekend's lead characters have this exchange when Russell convinces Glen to hop onto the back of his bicycle for a ride. It is not followed by a terrible crash, nor is it said with any sense of foreboding—both men embark with a smile and a wary laugh, more charmed by this admittedly "bad idea" than worried about how it will conclude. This cheerful sacrifice of what's safe, this slight physical vulnerability of the bike ride, stands in for the real emotional vulnerability the two men risk in the film's central is-it-or-isn't-it "bad idea": a fling between them that must stop with Glen's departure from the country at the close of the weekend.
British director Andrew Haigh's celebrated, micro-budget feature is a marvel—a collection of small moments like the bike ride and little gems of pre or post-coital conversation that add up to much more than the sum of their parts. Weekend achieves deep, provocative character studies and, without ever descending into the sappy or maudlin, creeps up on its audience with a richly emotional ending.
There's no better way to see the film—now that its theatrical run is over—than on the Criterion Collection's well-appointed Weekend (Blu-ray.).
Facts of the Case
As Haigh explains in an on-disc interview, Weekend isn't really a movie where much happens. The story is simple: sweet and reserved Russell (Tom Cullen) lives alone in a mid-sized English city (it's never named, but the production filmed in Nottingham) where he works as a lifeguard. He meets an aspiring artist named Glen (Chris New) at a gay club and takes him home. What begins as a one-night stand quickly intensifies, despite the looming deadline of Glen's departure for a two-year art program in America.
Even though the film is structured around the temporal limitation of a single weekend and the immanence of Russell and Tom's parting, it is much less about the suspense of what will happen when they are faced with separation than about the ways they will both be changed by the little sliver of time that is theirs. The strength of Haigh's film lies in its sparseness and patience—in the time and space it gives Cullen and New to really draw out their characters and show the audience their evolution within a 5-minute long take rather than between cuts in a romantic, music montage.
All of this hinges on fantastic, naturalistic performances from Cullen and New, who both have their roots in theater. Stage training presumably helped them thrive under Haigh's policy of doing long-take scenes without shooting any coverage (in other words, they had to act on camera for long stretches without screwing up). Cullen has, perhaps, the meatier role as the character whose perspective guides our own and who has a more fraught relationship with his own sexuality. He proves great at playing the quiet, introspective guy without coming off as dull or lifeless, always radiating warmth and barely acknowledged hopes. New has a greater challenge, though, in overcoming what he admits is Glen's obnoxious side. He has to reveal something tender underneath Glen's brashness, and he does, especially in a pillow-talk scene near the end when he performs earnestly in a seemingly silly role-playing conversation.
Now we come to the "universality" issue that arises, without fail, in the marketing of any gay movie that hopes to reach a broad audience. Honestly, I'm not really sure why we assume straight viewers need to be reassured that they, too, will relate to these gay characters in order to see the film. If that's the case, why aren't general audiences being constantly barraged with promises that war movies will offer universal stories to those who aren't in the military, or that period costume dramas will feature situations that will remind us of our own modern lives? Is a present-day gay romance really so much more alien to the average viewer than a military convoy in Iraq or a medieval king's court?
Thus, with a quick note to our straight readers that Weekend is not some impenetrable, insiders-only treatise on gay culture, let me instead assure our queer readers that Weekend is not some watered-down, generic romance that could have been cast with a male-female pair. While it isn't about being gay, this is a film that integrates gay issues into its story because they are integrated into its characters' lives. Russell and Glen casually debate about being out, assimilationism vs. radicalness, the continued taboo of gay sex, and the dominance of straight identity in the media: in love films most of all, significantly. These conversations feel natural and important in the film because Haigh has wisely set the story not in the gay hot spots of London, but in a less progressive urban space where its characters encounter and are shaped by everyday homophobia.
Criterion gives Weekend the company's customary, top-notch audiovisual treatment—at least, to the greatest extent possible for this low-budget feature. The image is crystal-clear and beautifully illuminated, conveying the immediacy of what is happening on screen and dashing any false impression that Haigh is working in the mode of rose-colored recollection. Though the sound mix is often sophisticated—as in its slightly off-kilter rendering of the gay club's pounding dance music, which emphasizes Russell's level of intoxication and alienation—you will likely be turning on the subtitles to make out the mumbled, heavily accented dialogue. This DTS-HD Master Audio track is only stereo, but I wouldn't say the film actually demands surround.
Weekend strikes me as the type of self-contained, understated film that has more to lose than to gain from being narrated and explained too much by those who made it. Fortunately, Criterion offers a moderate slate of extras that doesn't feel excessive or invasive. Most substantial is a 30-minute featurette built from interviews with Haigh, Cullen, New, and a few key crew members. Here, we get a very nice look at the Haigh's process and how he achieved so much on-screen intimacy: by building the actors' ways of speaking into the characters during script revisions, working with a female cinematographer, and shooting the story in chronological order. There are also interesting comments from Cullen and New on the psychology of their characters and a lively dissection of the film's gay politics. The latter topic continues into a 6-minute featurette on the film's sex scenes, in which Haigh reveals his ambition to create a "universal" sex scene that would emphasize the tender and romantic side of gay male sex.
Beyond the featurettes, Criterion includes two scenes of Cullen and New's audition footage, paired with the parallel scenes in the finished film (10 minutes); on-set footage shot by New that has the feel of an outtakes reel (8 minutes); a "video essay" by the film's set photographers, which is more like an interview played over their stills (7 minutes); and a theatrical trailer. "Cahuenga Blvd" (6 minutes) and "Five Miles Out" (18 minutes) are two short films from Haigh that also appear here. The former is a shorter, straighter, America-based version of Weekend's story that mostly serves to highlight what works so much better in the feature film; the latter—about a troubled young girl on holiday—bears little thematic relation to Weekend, but shares its minimalism and sense of pace. Lastly, the Blu-ray's booklet features a succinct and insightful essay by Dennis Lim that—among other things—places the film within the history of LGBT cinema.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If there's one wrong note in Weekend for me, it's the excessively heavy boozing, weed smoking, and hard drug use. Russell and Glen are constantly knocking back shots, lighting up joints, and even snorting lines of cocaine, on one occasion. The frequency and intensity of these habits gave me the impression that the characters were approaching "admit you have a problem" levels of substance abuse, which I think is neither the filmmakers' intention nor a wise and coherent element of this story. It either distracts from or cheapens their relationship, in my book, even if their states of intoxication prompt more openness (and kooky rambling) than would otherwise occur. Haigh could still get them drunk or high a couple of times for that effect, but I think cutting out the coke and about a third of the drinking and smoking would have been a good choice.
The question of drugs and alcohol in Weekend is a sticky issue because of its potential negative stereotyping of the gay male culture, for which the film has received some flak. Haigh responds in interview by claiming that if these were straight characters, no one would be complaining about those elements. Not complaining, perhaps, but frankly, if these were straight characters, a fair number of viewers would be describing it as a movie about addicts. What prevents that perception is viewers' assumption, correct or incorrect, that it's more normal in gay culture to get wasted or high all the time and snort coke.
While Weekend is not for everyone, your sexual orientation won't likely be the key factor in whether you'll enjoy it. If you have an eye for keenly rendered detail and the patience to just listen to a well-scripted and beautifully acted conversation, this is a must-see. This film about an intense weekend that truly changes those experiencing it, and it gives us the privilege of watching that change slowly unfold.
Not guilty. Now if only we long-suffering patrons of lesbian cinema could get our own Weekend…
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