29 December 2011

MOVIES I MISSED IN 2011: LET'S HEAR IT FOR THE BOYS

I'd heard several different people describe Weekend as "the gay Brief Encounter", and every time it threw me: we already had gay Brief Encounter, didn't we? It was called Brokeback Mountain, and it was kind of a big deal not that many years ago. Of course, gay movies don't get a whole lot less gay than Brokeback - as has been pointed out several hundred times, there are more topless women than pantsless men in that film - and I wondered if it was maybe that Weekend was, like, the GAY Brief Encounter, rather than the gayish-but-not-threatening-about-it Brief Encounter.

As it turns out, it's really not very much like any iteration of Brief Encounter at all, because it is too busy being Weekend.* Which is, on balance, a much better thing for it to be.

It's also not exactly right to call it "the gay anything", for even though it is irreducibly, aggressively, and necessarily homosexual without a hint of apology or restraint , it isn't about sexuality of any sort. About sex, absolutely, and about sex between men specifically, but it would be like calling Annie Hall a "straight romantic comedy": true, and quite important to the themes that get expressed, but pretty much beside the point. Weekend is first and foremost the story of two people who meet and start to fall in love without either of them precisely wanting it, their understanding of this situation and their reactions to it filtered through what they think and who they are, politically, socially, and in terms of just about everything else that could define a person, including gender.

The film is simplicity personified: it consists of almost nothing but a succession of two-hander scenes and contains virtually nothing in the way of plot. It has a scenario , that Andrew Haigh (the writer, director, and editor) fleshes out with some of the densest conversations about ideas and beliefs that any 2011 movie has contained, demonstrating along the way that movies consisting of almost nothing but talking can in fact be excitingly cinematic. It was made on the cheap and looks it; cinematographer Urszula Pontikos does everything in her power to add some visual flair to the proceedings, but there is a ceiling on what she can squeeze from the camera she's using. That said, Weekend looks pretty damn fine for what was undoubtedly a microscopic budget: Haigh has claimed the American mumblecore scene as one of his influences, which is an absolutely insane comparison to make willingly of a film that demonstrates so much superiority on so many levels to that style of filmmaking: take away the urban smallness of the mise en scène and there's absolutely no common ground. Weekend has ingeniously-crafted dialogue, and shots that are put together with a very clear idea for how to visually support the characters, and a careful approach to editing that lets the right shots linger and keeps the right scenes bright and speedy. It has handheld camera. There is that.

And there are characters, wonderful, indelible characters played with heartstopping precision by a pair of actors that seem to have come from absolutely nowhere, fully-formed, though they both have been in the trenches for a while now. The more important of the two, in that he is favored in the story structure and most of the visuals, is Russell (Tom Cullen), a lonely, introspective man who has left one foot in the close, and has reached his late '20s without apparently finding much satisfaction in his personal life; after a less-than-edifying party hosted by one of his many straight friends one Friday night, he drifts to a gay bar and ends up hooking up with Glen (Chris New), who is all the sociable and open and prideful things that Russell isn't. After an awkward post-coital morning during which Glen insists that Russell record his impressions of their night together for Glen's audio library of his sex partners, the two men discover that they rather enjoy each other's company. The wrinkle: Glen is leaving for America that Sunday afternoon, meaning that whatever kind of relationship they're going to have, needs to happen fast.

It is to the film's immeasurable credit that we never have even a moment's suspicion that Glen is going to be so transformed by love that he chooses to stay in England, or that Russell will spontaneously buy a ticket and fly overseas himself. They are simply not the kind of people who do that, and since Weekend is above all things else an exercise in getting to know exactly what kind of people these are, the fact that this will end tragically is encoded right into its bones. The characters don't spend a great deal of time dwelling on this timeframe, but Haigh introduces it in such a way, and then builds the remainder of his film as to emphasise the passage of hours, that we can hardly be aware of anything else, and much of the 97 minutes of Weekend feel like a timebomb counting down with cartoon ticking noises. And that, in turn, lends a sense of horrifying urgency to all of Russell and Glen's conversations, which cover a lot of topics under the broad umbrella of "how people relate": Glen slams Russell for being ashamed of his identity, Russell prods at Glen's reasons for being so spooked by romantic feelings. Jokes are traded, secrets and fears are exposed, and sometimes, the film manages the breathtaking achievement of depicting in completely persuasive terms the warm pleasure of being alone with somebody you enjoy being alone with, and not feeling the need to say much of anything at all. And as I say, the ticking-clock scenario that forms the film's only real narrative spine heightens all of it and makes us hang on every word and every gesture.

All of this is very lovely, stripped-down filmmaking paired with two damn devastating performances - not since Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams had their emotionally apocalyptic pas de deux in last year's Blue Valentine has any film about people navigating the complexities of love boasted such convincing actors - with everything extraneous to the central situation carved away. One could be slightly disappointed that it doesn't have a slightly more robust cinematic style beneath it all - and by "one could be", I obviously mean "I am" - but even if the filmmaking is invisible, it's precise and thoughtful (the opening and closing shots are immaculate bookends that silently drop us into the characters' lives and then just as silently take us back out), and the point is clearly that too much style, like too much writing, would get in the way of the actual movie: how two men connect with one another, and it how it makes them feel good, then sad, then happily bittersweet. This is character- and emotion-driven cinema at its purest and densest and most haunting.

9/10

3 comments:

Sean D said...

Glad you liked this one Tim! 'Weekend' and 'Take Shelter' were my two favorites this year, though granted I have a lot of catching up to do. 'The Tree of Life' is growing impatient with me and my procrastination in viewing it.

NicksFlickPicks said...

I think I might tweeted that it was a Brief Encounter, but by the time I got to my Red Line stop, I decided it was the gay Once and am now sticking with that.

Tim said...

You were, in fact, one of the several different people to whom I referred. But I have to hand it to you, "the gay Once" is pretty much the best I've heard yet.