Directed by Andrew Haigh
I was trepidatious to watch the much-lauded Weekend after reading the gushing review of it by A.O. Scott in the New York Times. Also, I’ve become cynical after watching so many bad “gay” movies lately that were recommended by reviews or IMDb ratings. I wasn’t in the mood to get fooled, or bored, again. I’m pleased to say, however, that Scott isn’t wrong or writing hyperbolically. Weekend is, in fact, a great and poignant love story featuring two gay men, carried mostly by its two central, flawless performances acting from a smart script. An open, soulful Tom Cullen is particularly good. But I was also impressed by its style and look. Appropriately, there’s already a Criterion Edition.
Further, Weekend renders irrelevant and glib every mumblecore movie I’ve ever suffered through, although it superficially resembles, at least during the characters’ conversations, the stylistic markers of that awkwardly named and executed genre. In Weekend’s case, however, the characters do more than pose as cultural stereotypes. They also register as people ? people I wouldn’t mind having a conversation with, unlike in say, Hannah Takes the Stairs. I’d run away as fast as I could from those characters.
In my Criticker mini-review, I said something like: Weekend is a character study about two characters who interrogate and challenge each other’s character, leading them to experience something like love. That jibes with my own memories of weekend love-affairs, in which infatuation and easy attraction very quickly generates affection and respect. In dramatizing that, which should resonate well beyond its natural gay fan base, it’s the first truly great gay-themed film since Brokeback Mountain. Weekend is also firmly anchored within a particular place. Here’s the opening shot just after the credits:
There are a number of similar shots throughout the movie ? long shots of landscapes, cityscapes and large interiors. Sometimes the characters are contained within them, so small that it took a second viewing for me to notice them. In the first screengrab below, pulled from the opening credit sequence, the main character hasn’t even entered the frame yet, and we’re not familiar enough with him, really, to notice when he does. The figure we do see is not him, although I thought it might be when I first took this screenshot. (Film continuity conventions usually have a character enter from the left anyway, when the next shot is a different location.)
Here are a couple other screengrabs featuring the characters dwarfed by their surroundings.
In contrast with these very wide long-shots, intimate interiors with people in them, who don’t speak, are often shot obliquely, with the camera at a 45-degree angle to the main architectural or set element ? across a bed, frequently, such as in the sex scenes, or at the side of a bathtub, in two others. We get alternate versions of the latter shot, with the camera tracking to deliberately avoid what another director might consider the primary element ? in one case, a character’s soaping up his cock. Other shots displace to the side characters who would normally be center-frame.
During conversations, a handheld camera tracks or pans to capture each speaker, whether they are conversations between the two main characters who are often in close-up, or between a group of characters conversing, as in the party scenes featuring the straight and married friends of main character, Russell, who’s not quite out-of-the-closet. There are no shot-reverse shot conversations.
Often, in these group scenes or couple scenes consisting mostly of conversation, the camera shoots through a piece of the set, or through a geographic or architectural element of the shot, or through other people. Frequently and significantly, those elements nearly occlude the main action. These shots register as being “medium-long” shots ? at a distance ? but they also feel like close-ups.
All of these types of shots either invoke intimacy, or simultaneously contrast it by showing how small the characters are, or how hard they are to spot, in relation to the larger world. In the Kings-Walk screengrab above, for instance, we only know we’re seeing the two main characters because we hear their conversation, in close-up to our ears, as it were, as we’re seeing the long shot of the street they’re walking down.
But it’s in the shots and sequences depicting the two main characters, Russell and Glen, alone in conversation, where the director’s stylistic choices powerfully reflect and build on what’s happening in the narrative. In some shots in which Glen and Russell talk to each other, the camera frames one while partially excluding the other:
In others, when we can see both of them, the depth of field (whatever we see in the shot that’s in clear focus) is so shallow that neither Glen nor Russell can be seen in sharp relief at the same time.
Here’s the shot at the end of that sequence, in which the camera quickly pans down to reveal Russell’s emotional tenor, declared in his body language, at hearing Glen’s renouncement of a traditional declaration of attachment:
Those crossed arms were always there, but the film only lets us see them at the point of maximum impact. It’s hard to see from these screengrabs, but one or the other character shifts out of focus depending on who’s talking, and that’s a very shallow depth of field, literally and metaphorically. This stylistic choice emphasizes their differences ? Russell is trying to convince Glen to commit, to someone, to him; Glen insists that he can’t do it, all while qualifying that he doesn’t want the two of them to “fall out” over that point. Yet, he’s still there.
The film’s final shot succinctly and powerfully enumerates the film’s central concerns: How hard it is to make connections, how many roadblocks are thrown up against intimacy, not just because of personality differences, but because of socio-political context. It’s a long, slow zoom that begins with the audience unable to hear the beginnings of their conversation because of the direct sound that corresponds with the POV; and it’s shot through fencing separating the train stop from the audience where Glen begins his journey from Nottingham, from Russell. As Glen and Russell emotionally say goodbye, a group of youths off-screen taunt them: Fucking gay boys. Here are some selections from that zoom:
Amidst the glut of films and other gay cultural products that solely define “coming out” in individualist terms ? through counter-culture, non-monogamist posturing ? or via conservative, social-justice conformity ? through pro gay-marriage imperatives ? Weekend instead pauses to dramatize and document the difficulties of navigating between the personal and inter-personal, as well as the social and political demands on individuals and on couples attempting to make a connection, however transitory that attempt is; and it makes that struggle moving, beautiful and, despite the film’s final parting, hopeful.