“I can hardly remember anything,” Russell (Tom Cullen) stammers, Glen (Chris New) brandishing a tape recorder in his face. If ever there were a post-coital confrontation, it’s this. Not some Albee-esque argument about the corrosion beneath domestic bliss or the Bergmanesque, bleakly animated gape of a screaming silence from God, but a morning after undressing of the self. If Russell, who is more reticent about his identity, intended for this little hookup to be an escape—and who among us?—Glen, an artist provoking the boundaries of exactly what Russell fears, had other plans. “Just talk about last night. You know, what happened, what you wanted to happen,” Glen instructs. Dive into the memory of what you wanted and what happened and find the space in-between, where a part of yourself, fragile and strange and budding, may exist. Remember what could have been while it was happening. Filmmaker Andrew Haigh doesn’t dwell on the recorder, just on the words, the cobbled-together memories.
In 2011, when Haigh’s Weekend premiered at SXSW, it was still relatively novel for someone to reveal those parts of themselves publicly, art project or otherwise. Almost as exotic was a film about gay men that embedded sex seriously in their lives, shorn of a jokey crassness and stripped of the tragedy that not infrequently dogged such stories. Haigh’s film, without condescending to its gay audience or pandering to its straight one, could meditate on both gazes, making Glen’s proclamations about the kind of gay art that would garner an audience, particularly regarding the kinds of subjects people would engage with, emerge as meta-commentary. Weekend could be both a film about those confessions and emotional excavations while itself being a confession and excavation.
Playwright Tony Kushner wrote that, in sex, you’ll “swallow maybe a quart of someone’s spit.” But what else, besides the bodily fluids, are you drinking? Glen’s art project, which investigates the projections we make about ourselves and others before and during casual sex, is the opposite of escape; rather, it’s a direct encounter with as much yourself as the other person, and a dare to see how well you know yourself after all. Your wants and desires and fears. Your past and future. Your politics.
The art project, which Russell sheepishly concedes to doing, forces him to get lost in memory—but he doesn’t, not quite. He recounts the previous evening’s escapades with a degree of embarrassment and hesitance, which Glen can see. As Glen pushes him and tests the limits of his memory and his boundaries talking about sex, the truth wriggles out. Maybe when they were messing around, Glen was playing a little too hard, maybe this isn’t exactly the kind of encounter Russell wanted: “Sorry, Glen, if I don’t make your grade.” The tape recorder clicks stop.
Small and charcoal-colored, there’s an anachronistic quality to Glen waving about a little tape recorder as a secret-keeper designed to betray, especially as the two exchange cell phone numbers shortly after. It’s memory, a recent past, but contained in something tactile, in contrast to the way that Russell keeps his memories about sex organized on a diaristic word document on his computer.
But the memory and the history that effectively bore them is not so hermetically relegated to sex, and their history of sex is not so insular that it doesn’t contain other facets of their life. Embedded within the film is a political context: What is Weekend if not two men traversing their own sense of politics? While blurbs and short synopses may describe the film as two men discussing what it means to be gay, one would be remiss to forget that emotional and architectural gayness (in this film and, dare I say, in life) is charged with and borne of politics.
Their individual and collective responses and experiences with shame, their pointedly different approaches to the expression of their identity, and their respective considerations and contemplations of what gay happiness might look like (domestic or liberated) are shaped by a political landscape. LGBTQ rights have been and continue to be fraught. in the UK. The Civil Partnership Act of 2004 allowed LGBTQ couples to enter into partnerships that were similar, though not the same, as marriage; though submitted in 1957, the aims of the Wolfenden Report suggesting that sexual acts between consenting adults [21 and over] should not be criminalized, would not become law until the Sexual Offences Act 1967; and rights for and the dignity of transgender people continue to be at risk, especially in the last few years.
At the bar, Glen enters a debate with a bar patron who had tried to quiet him as he was telling a bad hookup story to the attendees of his going away party. The camera looks through the branches of sinewy arms to find Glen and said heterosexual debating about who can lay claim to space at the pub, who can assert their loudness, and the structures and institutions that privilege straight people and their way of life. “Everything is there—all the books, all the films, all the TV shows!” Glen says, gesticulating, the straight guy bewildered. He tries to parry: “The sexuality of the loud noise was not an issue with me.” It’s unconvincing, as are most attempts to veil homophobia as a mere irritation. Russell observes this with a sense of bemusement, the kind of thing he would never do: Assert his politics so bombastically and so publicly. But, isn’t that apoliticality also political?
This seeming contradiction—to be shaped by politics but be apart from it—is made apparent as Russell looks into the mirror as we hear Glen say, “Look, straight people like us as long as we conform, we behave by their little rules.” He plays with the shape of his skin, stretches it, checks it for wrinkles, as if he knows that time and political change are lurching forward as his flesh begins to give away its penchant for transformation.
Glen continues: “In America, they went out on the streets and fought for equal rights, and over here people are too busy on fucking Grindr or shaving their asses to be able to do anything!” The exchange is perhaps one of the first times Grindr has been named explicitly in film and, more than that, used as a way to delineate political perspective and action.
Russell argues vehemently about the “radical” nature of gay marriage in the face of bigotry, proclaiming the beauty of loving relationships. Glen is unmoved by this, his fatigue peeking through his weary, coke-addled eyes, and the conversation moves to his future in America. Where it will be different. Maybe.
Glen and Russell are, not so tidily, positioned at different ends of the spectrum as far as gay political thought goes, with Russell not disinclined to assimilationist thought, and Glen vehemently in opposition to it. (He is an artist after all.) But even if there’s a certain normativity to Russell’s point of view, and an indie intimacy that signifies a kind of aesthetic respectability, the crux of Haigh’s drama is in how personal and political memory are inextricable from one another. Russell discloses that, as a child in the foster case system, he never got to come out to his father; they play-act it, performance articulating an alien honesty. He may not say so, but it’s not like Russell is unaware of the same compulsory heterosexuality that Glen speaks of; he simply has a different relationship to it. And though the ways in which these ideological perspectives are placed in (light?) opposition to one another forms much of the film’s drama, their snaking, tangled dynamic is ultimately its focus. These points of view are not so incompatible, or rather their dramatic compatibility relies on there being political difference.
It’s compelling, though, given how much politics is part of Weekend’s DNA that it’s the swoony romance that seems to obliterate the memory of that foundational component, as if the two could be separable. When Weekend appears on “best LGBTQ film” lists, blurbs about it betray a somewhat narrow approach, leaning on its “full-blown love affair” and “profound, possibly unrepeatable connection.” These aren’t necessarily inaccurate evaluations of the film, but they do feel somewhat decontextualized from the milieu (and literal action) that scaffold the very emotion that is praised. Its discursiveness, which is a crucial part of its beauty, feels dismissed.
It’s got its cinematic and social bonafides, well-spoken white gay men in thoughtful conversation, the narrative and aesthetic nods to Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Lean’s Brief Encounter. And, at the end, their lips tremble, they embrace like they’ve only each other to hold, and the telephoto lens zooms in slowly on the two men at a train station, the whooshing sounds of transportation drowning out their words so that their secrets with one another will remain just that. Another film reference maybe, an intertextual Russian doll—Lost in Translation with In the Mood for Love housed inside. Like Weekend itself has swallowed up all these movies about clandestine love, and slicked those elements up in its own DNA. Tony Kushner once wrote about how, during sex, you’ll swallow up to four quarts of someone else’s spit. By Weekend’s final sex scene, they’ve devoured each other’s past and present and future, the personal and the political, and they’ve found its mixture is intoxicating, their lives and ideas forever entangled. Weekend stitches together an open wound, romantically political and politically romantic.
Isn’t Weekend then, implicitly, about memory, the kinds created, the kinds we plumb the depths of to see how they shape us or how we want them to shape us? How we shape and bend memory to our will and whim? Russell’s are concealed, things to be slowly revealed over time, even to his straight best friend; Glen’s are available to anyone and everyone, little performances from the artist. But the alchemy between the two exists somewhere in the middle, as if Glen brings out the beauty of spectacle in revealing oneself and Russell’s revelation helps hone in on a privateness that shimmers in its authenticity and exclusivity. They’ll remember this evening—or if they don’t, it will have changed them irrevocably.