This article was published on January 10th, 2016
It’s been a year of ups and downs for filmmaker Andrew Haigh. In March, HBO execs announced they were cancelling his popular sophomore series Looking about gay men living in San Francisco, planning a finale to be aired in early 2016.
The painful decision was made, but not from Haigh’s (or the show’s) lack of creativity. In fact, HBO President Michael Lombardo, a gay man himself and self-proclaimed fan of the series, said “Looking was doing something I hadn’t seen on any other show, particularly dealing with gay lives”. In the words of another: that’s show biz, folks.
Though this did not set Haigh back on a creative front, producing what is probably the most surprisingly moving indie flick to be made this season: 45 Years that follows a heterosexual marriage as its stable foundations begin to crack ever so slightly. 2015 has been the year that Haigh shows the world that he is able to approach his subjects, be they gay men in San Fran or an elderly London couple, with an innate sense of maturity & insight about relationships far beyond his years.
Haigh’s second feature film, Weekend, spend its opening fifteen minutes in the quiet, private life of one of its title characters Russell. He attends a house party, smokes weed, assures his friend that he will go to his daughter’s birthday party, and leaves early to go to a gay club. Looking for a hook up, he meets Glen. They go back to Russell’s place, have sex, and the next morning Glen begins to interrogate Russell about the previous night’s experience for an art project.
What follows is Haigh’s revelatory study in human connection. Haigh takes pages out of films like Naked and Sunday Blood Sunday in its stark look at contemporary British life. The opening of Weeekend even evokes Schlesinger’s film: the start of a day that will change the way the characters think about the world. In Sunday Bloody, Glenda Jackson wakes up late, jumping out of bed and making instant coffee from water in the sink–the start of a bad day. Russell’s day offers similar alienation: he feels a stranger in a strange world today, longing for physical connection to convince himself that his own neuroses and insecurities are validated.
Why else would he leave the party early to go to the club? He seeks to be validated through the experience of feeling someone unknown. In 15 minutes, Haigh gives a portrait of a confused, insecure character that seems all too familiar to some of us.
Even though Haigh’s Russell is somewhat of a dishonest person, lying to friends just to keep the jolly party atmosphere for instance, when he meets Glen, the film feels to have more spark in it. Glen is the spark to Russell’s life that has been built around false advertising of himself to others. Glen desires emotional intimacy after physical intimacy, the tape recorder he uses to force Russell to open up plays as a third character in the interrogation scene, as both men look to it knowing that what is being said on it is permanent and, therefore, must be honest.
What Haigh says about modern gay life is that people like Russell believe that emotional intimacy that follows physical intimacy is something controlled on a case-by-case basis…and on the apartment owner’s terms. Which is why Glen’s easiness of going from sex to honest pillow talk is revelatory to him. As the film goes on, Russell becomes more aware of the affect Glen is having on him, opening up about his past and even closing off details that may jeopardize Glen’s staying around.
After all, this was a one-night stand. There is the fear that most gay men have, when they hook up with someone great then goes on dates with them, which they may lose the person on the basis of the first encounter. Haigh’s characters delve deep into the other’s past & emotions, but behind their words is still a fear that where they began, a hormone-driven hookup at a sleazy gay bar, could be used as reason to not trust the relationship. Perhaps if they had met eyes in a coffee shop or shared glances at a Gap, it would be different.
But for them, and many gay men who’ve experienced similar situations, it is not.
What Weekend accomplishes is a gritty realism about modern romance that can not be found in many new films. That is that modern relationships desire a first-encounter that is not dirty or based in carnal impulses. When a relationship starts like that, it is inherent that both feel unsure of the other’s trust. At least, that is the underlying fear in Russell.
Glen, on the other hand, puts effort into trying to get to know Russell. Because of this ease, Russell wonders if Glen has done this before. Maybe so, or maybe this time, it’s different.
It is different, and Glen seems to embody the audience in his endless attempts to crack Russell while staying enigmatic himself. By the end of the film, when Glen makes the climactic decision, we feel it is best not for Glen, but for Russell. Some people just need a bit more time to be single than others.
Weekend is one of those films that is hard to forget. Haigh’s film emphasizes the subtly of human contact. In fact, one thing that is noticed upon a second viewing is the character’s breathing, especially during the sex scenes. We can understand the fear, ambivalence, and joy in each motion through just listening to their breath. Haigh has concocted beautiful sex scenes that are never overly soft-core but deeply felt and tender. The same can be said about the film itself, resonating ions of emotion days after its gut-wrenching final shot.