Haigh’s ‘Weekend’ explores boundary between sex and romance

Quinnford + Scout/Courtesy

What a lovely way to spend a “Weekend” in London, with two beautiful men getting drunk off each other’s lust and never stopping to think that their attraction is wrong. So many “gay” movies — now a pejorative, thanks to what’s streaming on Netflix — insist on the marginality and oppression of homosexual love, treating its participants like another species. But here is a movie that leaves agenda behind in favor of story, where two people who meet, share their private parts and ultimately leave it at that. Is the story about love, or just sex? It’s unclear. But let’s let sleeping boys lie.

Director Andrew Haigh has an unapologetic, overflowingly open understanding of gay culture, and his contemplative cinematic language reflects that spontaneity. Actors Tom Cullen and Chris New, both flawless performers of flawed characters, are relative newcomers. I can’t say whether they are actually gay or not, but they play it so well, you have to wonder.

Russell (Cullen) is not totally comfortable in himself. He’s out to close friends but at the club where he spends his nights timidly cruising, he is withdrawn. Until he spots Glen (New) at the bar, follows him into the bathroom and sizes him up at the urinal. At first, Glen dodges Russell’s advances. Eventually we learn that Russell wasn’t his first choice to go home with (“Does that matter?” Glen says).

The next day we see them together at Russell’s apartment, hung-over from the hookup. Russell, now dressed, makes coffee while Glen stays naked in bed. They recount the fuzzy details of the night and exchange numbers. Then, Glen drops the bomb that he’s leaving London the next day. “Like on holiday?” Russell asks. Not quite. Glen is leaving for Portland for two years, and this is his last weekend in London.

Viewers will no doubt draw comparisons to “Before Sunrise,” Richard Linklater’s 1995 ode to Vienna and ideal love. Both films are talky and suspenseful, keeping us constantly wondering and worrying about what the lovers will do the next day, when the dream is over. In one scene, Glen leans closer and closer into a dithering Russell who avoids his gaze while making tea. We know what Russell wants — to lean in, too — but his own self-imposed wall holds him back. This moment is as anxious as any tension-filled sequence in a more dramatic movie.

Unlike Jesse and Celine in “Sunrise,” these characters are less articulate, and things move faster since Russell and Glen begin rather than end with a hookup. Their conversations aren’t pretty or poetic. More simply, these late-twentysomethings say things we’ve said before.

Are Russell and Glen in love? It’s hard to say. Even the film doesn’t seem to know what that means (and all the better). They get very intimate on Glen’s last night, doing drugs and prattling on about their exes and anxieties (“I don’t do boyfriends,” Glen says outright). The sex scenes, which are really hot, seem uncomfortable and authentic.

“Weekend” feels as cozy as a rainy day spent in bed. The sweet-and-sour finale has the same power as the end of Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation,” where two people, just before peeling apart, share a secret meant only for them.

Surely these kinds of quasi-ambiguous endings are the fashion of independent film. But in “Weekend,” that uncertainty feels earned. Haigh respects his characters enough to give them, and us, the conclusion they deserve. Russell and Glen are not immediately lovable. Actually, they can be quite annoying. But real people are annoying, too.