The greatest story ever told (about gay men, that is)
Bret Easton Ellis is one of many to praise a new UK film about a gay romance. Kaleem Aftab on why it's a rare triumph
Friday 14 October 2011
A pretty remarkable movie anyway you look at it but Andrew Haigh's Weekend (UK) also might be the greatest film about gay men ever made," tweeted American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis last week on 3 October. The interest in Weekend had begun to supernova before Ellis added to the bandwagon of stellar reviews that emerged when the film premiered at the South by South West Film Festival in March, and accompanied the US release of the romantic drama at the start of October.
It's easy to see why Weekend has made such a strong impact. Haigh's picture is one of the few movies that capture modern attitudes to sex without falling into the cliches that come with the cinematic tendency to frame morals into a pseudo-religious spectrum of love, fidelity and marriage. This applies as much to films about heterosexual romances as to gay ones.
Russell, played by Tom Cullen, is a shy lifeguard, a private individual who shies away from making his homosexuality overt. We first see him go to a dinner party with some straight pals before heading out to a gay bar. It's here that he meets boisterous Glen, played by Chris New. We don't see what follows but the next morning they wake up and Glen reveals he's creating an art project in which he interviews gay men about "coming out".
Glen's free-love radicalism is at the opposite end to Russell's conservatism and the tape recorder acts as a conduit through which deeper discussions about sexuality can take place.
Even though the pair jump into bed with each other on the first night, this is neither frowned upon, nor seen as out of the ordinary. Instead, what is exceptional is that a bond develops between them as they spend the weekend with each other. Tension builds as it's revealed that Glen is about to move to America to start a new life, and he's now faced with a dilemma of whether to go or not.
It's all shot with a gritty realism, in long takes that demand the audience make their own mind up about the couple, and the music is diegetic. Class differences are played up: working-class Russell is surprised by the thoughts of his middle-class lover. Its a movie about love, sex, British youth, and also shows remarkable aptitude to make a film on a low budget, and one which was shot in just 12 days.
As Ellis states, Weekend is remarkable whatever way you look at it, but the claim that anything is the greatest is nearly always impossible to substantiate in art, where there are no records to be broken nor scientific tests of data, yet Ellis' assessment is almost certainly true, if only because the competition is not high.
Haigh himself points out that a problem faced with promoting any film as "queer cinema" is that there has not been a good gay film from the UK in the past decade. The Norwich-based director says he has been scratching his head to think of a British gay film that has crossed over.
"We [he and the film's publicist] tried to think about a gay British film in the last 10 years and we couldn't think of any. There was Lawless Heart [Tom Hunsinger and Neil Hunter's 2001 story set in the aftermath of the death of a gay restaurateur] but that wasn't about gay sexuality per se. Beautiful Thing [Hettie Mcdonald's 1996 tale of a schoolboy coming out] ...was probably the last, and that was, what, 15 years ago?"
Only 2006's The History Boys could fairly be added to this list. The perception of gay films, especially of British examples being poor, is such that Haigh states that he has played up the universal nature of the romance while doing press for the film. The 38-year-old Norwich based director explains: "There are so many bad examples of gay films that it's kind of tarnished the whole notion of gay cinema." The director say this may have to do with there not having been a successful queer-cinema movement in Britain.
"In America, there's a lot more gay stuff being made. I suppose that they had the whole queer cinema movement in the Eighties and Nineties and so there is a movement out there. In the UK that's never happened, there has never been British queen cinema. Derek Jarman, Isaac Julien perhaps."
Haigh doesn't feel that public bodies have funded and supported British film-makers sufficiently. "It's an issue about being funded. The British Film Council had a diversity remit and a commercial remit and they would veer much more to the commercial side. We tried to go down that route and were turned down numerous times. [Yet] it's a film that doesn't cost that much and even if it was just gay people who went to see it, it's still an audience."
The situation is not that much better in other countries. It's undeniable that gay cinema is seriously malnourished in the mainstream, consigned to a niche. Weekend would easily stand its ground against recent gay films from America. Long gone are the days when Douglas Sirk would have to hide the gay subtext in his films such as All That Heaven Allows, with lines such as "I can't shoot straight", and where the gardener, played by Rock Hudson, is asked by Jane Wyman's Carrie, the frustrated housewife, "what would you think if I was a man?"
Todd Haynes remade the film as Far From Heaven in 2002, but in the world of cinema the homophobia depicted in the Fifties is just as prevalent today. Movies frequently depict gay characters as stereotypes: the clichéd fey gay best friend being the most prevalent. It's arguable that the best examples of gay relationships have been about closeted men unable to express their feelings. Brokeback Mountain falls into this category, and the childish way the film was nicknamed "The gay cowboy film" highlights ingrained prejudices.
Queer cinema saw the rise of auteurs such as Gregg Araki and Gus Van Sant, yet even Van Sant, the great American director who made Milk, and who started off with Mala Noche, has failed to make a winning contemporary film about a gay love affair without couching it in history or covering it in Shakespearean rhyme.
Homosexuality is a topic the studios do not touch unless the film is about gay rights, hot topics such as Aids, or the relationship is just a small part of a much bigger story. It would be seen as folly to make a gay romantic comedy and spend as much on marketing as, say, Friends with Benefits.
Away from America, and it's really only Pedro Almodovar who can truly claim to be a gay director of international renown. The irony, of course, is that he's most famous for his depiction of women. Rainer Werner Fassbinder was perhaps the last renowned director to seriously portray gay life.
All of which leaves Wong Kar Wai's Happy Together, about a Hong Kong couple who move to Buenos Aires. It features one of the most beautiful gay sex scenes committed to celluloid, out of the reach of the budget of Weekend.
What is the strength of Happy Together and Weekend is that both films touch upon characters struggling with love in a modern world, where the protagonists happen to be gay.
'Weekend' screens at London Film Festival on 15 October. It opens on 4 November
Out on the big screen: Landmarks of gay cinema
A Single Man
Colin Firth (above) stars as a middle-aged gay man in 1960s Los Angeles who is struggling to cope with the death of his long-time partner, in Tom Ford's 2009 film, based on Christopher Isherwood's novel of the same name.
Starring Sean Penn, this 2008biographical film traces the story of Harvey Milk, an American political activist who fought for gay rights and became California's first openly gay elected official.
James Fox and Dirk Bogarde (above) star in Harold Pinter's 1963 film adaptation of Robin Maugham's 1948 novel about the relationship between a spoilt socialite and his usurping manservant. As both the book and the film came into existence well before the decriminalisation of gay sex, the film's theme of homosexuality remains entirely implicit.
One of the highest-grossing romance films of all time, this 2005 Academy Award-winning movie starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal depicts the story of a forbidden and secretive relationship between two cowboys.
In one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to tackle the issue of Aids in the US, Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington star in the 1993 story of man with Aids who is dismissed by a conservative law-firm because of his condition. By Morgan Durno
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