Monday, March 17, 2014

"Weekend" (2011)

Andrew Haigh’s « Weekend » is one of the most beautiful and compelling love stories I have ever had the privilege to watch, a film possessed in every frame by the most important quality that defines a film and indeed every work of art and entertainment: Sincerity. This quality is particularly welcome in a film centered on a relationship that is built by it; by the feelings the two lovers bring out in each other, and the protagonist’s subsequent attitude towards his sexuality.

Russell (Tom Cullen) is a sensitive young gay man who lives alone in his apartment. He is first seen attending a party at his best friend’s house along with friends and family. While he appears to fit in and gets along well with them, the lack of spatialization due to the closeness of shots and length of the focal suggest he does not feel completely at home. His friends lead the conversations for the entirety of the scene. Their dialogue itself does not reveal anything important about them, but Russell's reactions to themconvey just enough for us to know of his discontent.  However, it is not until he leaves and goes into a nightclub, where a similarly-aged young man catches his eye, that the information of his homosexuality is communicated to the audience.

After a cat-and-mouse game in and out of the toilets, Russell takes him home and spends the night with him. The following morning, we learn that the man’s name is Glen (Chris New). After some post-coital small talk, Glen admits that their tryst was part of an artistic project he’s working on. With a tape recorder, he asks Russell – challenges would be a more accurate word – to recall their one-night-stand in as much detail as he can remember, and describe how he felt about it. After some coaxing, Russell agrees.

In a long shot regularly panning from Russell’s face to Glen’s, the viewer bears close witness to the birth of two beautiful characters and the seeds of an equally beautiful relationship. Despite his embarrassment, Russell traces all the steps of their night, contradicting Glen on a few details. This is a rough sketch of what their exchanges will be like: A contradictory mixture of oppositions and discoveries. Glen counters Russell’s self-consciousness with relaxed cockiness and buoyancy. The goal of his project, he explains, is to expose the audience to a frank discussion about gay sex. As he will frequently argue throughout the film, society, in spite of its progress and tolerance, remains doggedly heteronormative and expects gays to conform to its behavioral norms; be gay, but not too gay. Talk about your sexuality, but don’t shove it down our throats like we do to you in every form of art and media.

This conformity is precisely one of Russell’s foremost traits and one of the sources of his lack of self-assurance. While he is out to his best friend Jamie and the latter’s family and friends, he is still reluctant to discuss his feelings openly and be himself for all to see. Whether it’s homophobic insults from passing kids, teenagers making “spot-the-gay-guy” jokes on the bus while blissfully unaware that there’s one right next to them or a coworker graphically boasting about how he can stick four fingers up a woman’s vagina, Russell is constantly reminded of his otherness.

What makes this situation even more difficult for him is the fact that he is an orphan. This status presents him with a major challenge that, quite ironically, many gays would likely find convenient in theory: He never had any parents to come out to. Having grown up in foster homes, Russell feels even more of an outsider than he normally would. How is one supposed to define one’s personal identity without the recognizable group of reference that constitutes a family?

Shot with mostly long-to-middle focals, primarily direct sound and no recognizable actors, “Weekend”’s naturalism immerses the viewer as an invisible observer. Many shots are obscured by the blurry bodies of extras or furniture in the foreground. Initially used to make the audience share Russell’s discomfort and oppression, most notably in the scene with the decidedly heterosexual coworker, this visual attribute gradually ceases to be unnerving as Russell and Glen’s relationship evolves from sexual and intellectual attraction into genuine tenderness.

This evolution reaches a pinnacle during a long sequence in Russell’s apartment on the night before Glen has to leave for America. Fuelled by cocaine, poppers and hints about Glen’s past romantic life dropped at a previous party, Russell and Glen confront each other on their personal attitudes towards their sexuality and themselves in general. Through their fights, personal truths break out. Russell calls out Glen on what he feels is the incompatibility between his denunciation of inequality and his dismissal of commitment. From his journal, he recalls an encounter with a married man and the sense of shame and guilt as he thought about him going home to his wife and kissing his children goodnight. It becomes clear that Glen has come to represent both an ideal of sexual comfort as well as a hopeful anchor to a life of stability and happiness. Glen’s mask of opinionated cynicism comes down, but not without a fight.

Thus, love appears in “Weekend” as a battlefield in which victory is achieved by both parties when they build their relationship with remaining pieces picked up after each attack. It is a complicated, maddening thing, yet entirely worthwhile for the improvement it creates within each lover. While my own relationship with my wonderful girlfriend Deanna is fortunately free of such emotional violence, I nevertheless recognized the truth of Russell and Glen’s love for each other in the unflinching honesty they bring out of each other.

As Russell, Tom Cullen gives the impression of constantly wading through an inner minefield in his quest for purpose and self-acceptance. It’s a superbly understated performance, one of the best seen in 2011. However, the actor whose presence endures the most, long after the film’s conclusion, is Chris New, an aptly-named actor with the face of a shorter Kevin Durand, the voice of a younger Jude Law and raw natural talent that evokes the great Tom Hardy. Doubtless many actors would have tried to make Glen likeable in spite of his smugness and devil-may-care attitude. Not many would have imbued him with the soul Chris New brings to him, and even fewer would have had the courage to dare the audience to accept him as he is.

For all the preceding paragraphs, I still feel I have not done enough justice to “Weekend”’s power and splendor. It should be experienced by all who have ever experienced a relationship – long-term or short-term as in the film’s case – that fundamentally changed them as human beings. While the gay condition is a prominent and recurring theme within the film, it is not what defines it. As in real life, the characters’ humanity far supersedes their sexuality.

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