One of the iconic scenes of the romance or the romantic comedy is the ‘meet-cute’, the scene where the romantic leads meet and sparks fly. Whether they fall into banter or disagreement, the point of the meet-cute is to dazzle us with chemistry, make us instantly root for the couple to get together regardless of obstacle. It almost doesn’t matter what genre you’re working in, because the meet-cute is the definitive scene of almost any cinematic love story.
Except for Andrew Haigh’s Weekend. Haigh largely avoids the meet-cute, playing the seduction scene before the one-night-stand-turned-more completely wordlessly and then skipping ahead to the next morning. Even then, though, the dialogue is more fumbling, awkward, even contentious than it is cute or chemistry-laden. The movie establishes not that these two are meant to be, but that they are profoundly different people.
Russell is a quiet, reserved gay man in Nottingham, a lifeguard who never joins in the raucous stories of his coworkers and never brings dates to his family parties. After one such gathering on a Friday night, he heads to a gay bar and picks up Glen, an out-and-proud artist whose brash confidence conflicts with Russell’s more subdued lifestyle. But there’s still a spark between them, so they meet up again the next day and go on a date, talking about art and life and general first date stuff until they find that they have a genuine connection – and that Glen is leaving the country for two years on Sunday afternoon. What follows is a single weekend, perhaps the only one they’ll ever have together, where they try and figure out what their chemistry means.
Haigh borrows heavily from the ur-text for indie filmmaking, Steven Soderbergh’s groundbreaking Sex, Lies, and Videotape, but Haigh spins the story in a different, sweeter direction. If Soderbergh’s film was about four people deep in dysfunction, unable to sort themselves out and unintentionally hurting one another because of it, Haigh narrows that down to just two characters, and turns that dysfunction into an examination of chemistry and of the way opposites can attract by bringing out the finest qualities in one another. Quiet, dependable Russell helps Glen get over betrayal by an asshole ex; out extrovert Glen helps Russell feel more confident in being publicly sexual.
But make no mistake – this isn’t a ‘coming out’ story, nor is it a ‘tragic gay’ story. Russell and Glen have those stories in their past, but Haigh smartly chooses to make the movie about them and their romance, rather than the more conventionally Hollywood method that would focus more heavily on their persecution, on disapproving families or AIDs or an attack. Instead, Weekend focuses heavily on two people who find a unique bond and try to explore it in the limited time they have.
It’s a smarter choice that makes, I think, for a warmer, more humanistic movie. But Haigh seems to realize that it’s also a choice that essentially dooms the movie to a niche viewership. When talking about his own art project cataloging the sex lives of gay men, Glen says the following:
“The problem is that no one’s gonna come and see it, because it’s about gay sex. So the gays’ll only come because they want a glimpse of a cock, and they’ll be disappointed. The straights won’t come because, well, it’s got nothing to do with their world. They’ll go and see pictures of refugees or murder or rape. But gay sex? Fuck off.”
It’s easy to read Glen’s monologue as a defense of a lot of what gets pigeonholed as ‘gay art’, including Weekend. If it were about gay men suffering and dying, straight audiences might be willing to give it a shot. But the sex lives of happy, reasonably well-adjusted gay men? To many people, that may seem like something that doesn’t apply to them. Nevermind the universality of the feeling at play in Weekend, those heady first moments after you meet someone who really speaks to you and those heady last moments before something promising ends; there are some folks who won’t be able to see how this applies to them, why it’s important.
And that’s too damn bad, because this is a gorgeous movie.
Part of the purpose of this column was to examine the modern romance and romantic comedy to figure out why the genres fortunes wane. As I discussed last week, there are a great many potential culprits – the lack of major stars is a big hit, of course, as Justin Long simply doesn’t have the drawing power of a mid-90s Tom Hanks, for example. But I think there are bigger problems: There is no more perception among studios or creators of an omnipresent romantic experience. They no longer know how to appeal to what they perceive as ‘everyone’.
For years, the template for romance and romantic comedy was essentially the same: Meet-cute, courtship, temporary break-up, reunion/wedding. The specifics might differ, but that rough path defined the genre for decades, and to a degree, that was the default assumption for young people in love. Romance was a genre built on sexual tension; we wanted that tension to build and build and build until the leads had to get together. The reason the temporary break-up worked is because it halted the tension without dissipating it; we needed that resolution.
But that assumption has been broken, as has one fundamental tension of the genre. It’s telling, I think, that this is the second romantic film I’ve covered for this column – out of three! – that opens with a one-night stand. Weekend, Going the Distance, Obvious Child, Friends with Benefits, No Strings Attached, How to Be Single – they all open with a one-night stand, with characters who are sexual before they’re romantic. Which is great, because for a lot of people, that’s what life is like… but it also dispels a lot of that sexual tension early on. Romance on film has lost one of its most potent narrative tools, but it hasn’t figured out how to replace it yet.
Weekend doesn’t offer any answers, there; or, rather, Weekend doesn’t offer any answers that studios looking to get into the romance business might like. Haigh’s film replaces sexual tension with mature, insightful conversations, with a well-observed look at a particular relationship in a particular time and place. Weekend is the sort of emotionally sophisticated movie that might have become a hit in the 1970s (Well, if it had been about straight white Americans, so…), but in the 2010s it is no less revolutionary, and no less essential.
Next time on Loveless
Previously on Loveless