Wednesday, August 22, 2012

#622: Weekend

(Andrew Haigh, 2011)

Weekend is one of the most unassuming revolutionary films you are likely to see. In a perfect world, this wouldn't be that far off from, say, Once or Before Sunrise. In our world, though, a small movie about two people in love who happen to be men means a lot more than that. Its characters know it, too - not in a meta, we're-in-a-love-story-about-gay-people way, but in a much more moving what-does-it-mean-to-be-gay-and-falling-in-love-way. This isn't what makes Weekend a great movie; politically "brave" or socially conscious movies rarely attain this timeless status. Think of the hopelessly simplistic Gentleman's Agreement or the guilt-wracked Philadelphia. But it does make it an important one, which is something different from an evaluation of its art, even if the two things are inextricably entwined.

The plot of Weekend is extremely simple: two men have a casual one-night stand but begin to feel a connection and turn something casual into an intimate few days spent getting to know each other. The movie is really about one of them, Russell, played spectacularly by Tom Cullen, as the film never strays from his perspective. This choice seems both political and necessary for the narrative: Russell is the more emotionally uncomfortable with his sexuality of the two, and seeing his growth as a confident lover and loved one over the course of the film is the beating heart at the center of the story. The film contrasts his arguably more conservative romantic views, a belief in love and marriage and sexual propriety, with those of his counterpart Glen, who sees strength only in being unashamed of his homosexuality, often defined by his own "queerness" (which is to say a rejection of the mainstream). This contrast is not only used to create interesting conversations about gay politics, though. Haigh has deftly balanced the two characters and their histories to create two sides of a whole, making their budding relationship seem extremely natural and believable; these characters really do seem to complete each other.

The challenge of gay cinema over the last twenty years in particular has been to create authentically gay stories without depending on the novelty or political relevance of featuring gay characters. Movies about gay people shouldn't be limited to message pictures like Boys Don't Cry or empty gestures like My Best Friend's Wedding - where's the murder mystery being solved by the gay police detective, or the action movie starring a gay James Bond? Perhaps the biggest success in this regard, ironically, was the supremely mediocre Will and Grace. (Though it was largely inauthentic, I'd argue it was no less realistic than the equally mediocre Friends - after all, don't gay people deserve their own shitty sitcom?) Creating these stories is an admirable task in many regards, but it shouldn't be the end goal. Just as striving for equality means thriving on diversity rather than ignoring it, the most important reason gay stories should be incorporated into the mainstream are the insights and collective experiences these new perspectives have to offer. When we learn more about the world and other people, we learn more about ourselves and our place in that world.

What's really impressive about Weekend is that it manages to succeed in both these regards. Not only is the film a rather conventionally moving love story, it's one that could only be told about two men. The two most significant and satisfying climactic moments - (spoiler alert) Russell finally shedding his self-consciousness about being gay and kissing Glen at the train station and the final moment in which it is revealed that Glen returned the tape to Russell - could really only have the emotional impact they do within their contexts. This is particularly true of the tape, since the power dynamic around sex would be so different with a man and a woman that this simple gesture would not nearly have been as powerful as it is here. After everything Russell and Glen have experienced and discussed, this returning of an intimate moment says more than it ever could have in a straight context.

Weekend is also a beautifully shot and wonderfully acted movie, and Haigh clearly has the potential for a very bright career ahead of him. But just as the film doesn't rely on the political statement it makes to carry it, neither does it allow its cinematic elements to overwhelm its narrative ones. Weekend is a great movie not because of the experience of watching it, but because its simple and profound portrait of a relationship has stayed with me for days after seeing it, and is unlikely to go away any time soon.

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