16 October 2011
London

One day, two great London Film Festival films: Steve McQueen’s brilliant, punishing Shame, and Andrew Haigh’s swooningly romantic Weekend

This weekend I got to see two of the star features of the London Film Festival, which also happen to be two of the most interesting British films of the year: Steve McQueen’s sex addiction drama Shame, starring the very hot and frequently naked Michael Fassbender; and Weekend, a low budget Nottingham-based gay love story by Andrew Haigh. For those of you who don’t plan to read on, know that they’re both marvellous films which deserve an audience, so please go and see them: Weekend opens in the UK on 4th November, and Shame on 13th January 2012.

In one of the peculiarities of the Festival’s scheduling system, I got tickets for both films on the same Saturday: Shame at midday in a soulless Leicester Square multiplex, and Weekend on Saturday evening at the much more salubrious BFI on the South Bank. As it played out, it was a fascinating delayed double feature, and the day became one of those glorious but emotionally harrowing cultural journeys that’s seared itself into my memory and given me a lot of food for thought about my life.

Both films, each very good on their own merits, ended up talking to each other in a kind of dangling conversation in my mind. As a double feature, they presented both sides of the dance of sexual intimacy. Shame was a sombre, aesthetically dazzling, emotionally punishing ride through the lows and lows of sexual addiction: it was like falling face-first into a Francis Bacon painting, or re-enacting the Stations of the Cross as redesigned by Philippe Starke. Weekend, by contrast, had a remarkable optimism, as a drunken one-night stand between two cute boys graduates over the course of two days into something genuinely loving and transformative. I was a weepy emotional wreck after each film, and yet felt grateful for the experience, in the way that only great art can emotionally slap you around and make you enjoy it at the same time. It helped that Saturday was a gorgeously crisp and sunny autumn day straight out of a Walt Whitman poem, and central London was heaving with tourists and locals eager to do some revelling before the sun fades and the long grey winter draws in, so the city had an energy and buzz that made me feel doubly excited to be in among it all.

Shame was a compellingly grim examination of Brandon, a good looking 30something Irish New Yorker (played by the foxy Mr Fassbender) who has one of those New York movie lives to die for: a successful job, an all-white minimalist apartment, a killer body, and an easily likeable persona that makes him irresistible to women and gets him laid continually. Brandon is also revealed to be a heavy-duty, balls-out sex addict. His every waking moment is consumed with sex: cruising women on the subway and in bars, regularly timed toilet breaks at work to jerk off, dialling up call girls in real and virtual time, ceaseless searching through internet porn sites on his laptop, and frantic masturbation in the shower. In a series of carefully composed frames, McQueen watches and records Brandon repetitive behaviour with a cool observing eye and a degree of emotional remove, as if holding him under a microscope. That coolness gradually erodes over the film as we see Brandon literally unravel, and the film loses something of its composure and “breaks down” as he does.

McQueen doesn’t spend a lot of time providing psychological backstory which might explain Brandon’s sex addiction. There are a couple of heavy-handed pointers to a grim childhood signalled along the way, but McQueen, is more interested in the body as a marker of experience than the mind. Brandon says at one point that actions speak louder than words, and it’s something McQueen appears to endorse, creating, as he did in his first film Hunger, a “cinema of the body”. In Hunger, Fassbender fearlessly starved himself down to a skeletal frame to play Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands, allowing McQueen to focus in close-up on his emaciated frame. In Shame, there’s a bit more dialogue, but the focus is mostly on the close observation of Fassbender’s lean, sinewy form, which becomes his battering ram as well as his prison. Tightly framed close ups show him lying in bed with artfully rumpled sheets and extended tracking shots silently track him running through night streets in New York. Like many video installation artists, McQueen loves the static framing shot, where Fassbender walks through the shot, usually slapping the camera lens with his massive willy on the way past, or we observe sustained sex scenes. It’s a brave performance, emotionally and physically naked, and clearly the result of a close, almost sado-masochistic bond between director and actor.

Most of the plot of Shame is generated by the arrival of Brandon’s younger sister, Sissy, played brilliantly and without vanity by Carey Mulligan, who clearly relishes the chance to play a degenerate for a change. She’s a lounge singer with a bad bleach job, raccoon eye make-up, a ragamuffin wardrobe and some serious co-dependency issues, and as painfully open, messy, needy and vulnerable as Brandon is contained, obsessive-compulsively neat and emotionally closed off. Despite their obvious differences, it’s clear that Brandon and Sissy are both cut from the same cloth: both use sex as a weapon and a comfort blanket, and both have a disturbing lack of self-consciousness about being naked, including around each other. McQueen and his scriptwriter Abi Morgan somewhat bluntly suggest an incestuous link between the pair – Brandon guilelessly walks in on a naked Sissy in the shower, and a roughhousing scene on the sofa looks alarmingly close to the start of rough sex.

Brandon, irritated by Sissy’s lack of boundaries, clingy neediness and inappropriate choice of his boss as a new lover, is nonetheless moved when he hears her perform a slow, heartfelt rendition of New York New York in a tony uptown bar. Mulligan sings surprisingly well, and McQueen films the song in extreme close-up, and mostly in an interrupted single take, making it one of the film’s emotional highlights. Disturbed by what Sissy brings up in him, Brandon pushes her away, but then appears to have a change of heart. Like all good sex addicts, he puts himself through a punishing regime of Cold Turkey: throwing away his porn collection (and, eventually, his laptop) and attempting to go on a date with his foxy co-worker Marianne, played with great wit and perception by Nicole Beharie. The two debate the politics of intimacy over dinner, and clearly spark together, though Brandon sends up so many danger signals that Marianne eventually withdraws. Eventually, Brandon reverts to type and does what’s worked in the past: he treats Marianne like a whore and takes her to a hotel for a drug-fuelled lunchtime quickie. What follows is an extraordinarily well-choreographed scene in which the characters have a wordless, quite beautiful conversation with each other through sex. True to form, Brandon can’t handle the intimacy and loses his erection. Marianne leaves, while Brandon curls himself into a ball of self-loathing in the corner. In a gesture of savage honesty that characterises the film, McQueen jump-cuts immediately to Brandon fucking another woman roughly against the window in the same hotel room.

At this point, the film abandons some of its formalist cool and starts to unravel, assuming some of the more predictable moves of the “addiction” movie narrative. Brandon goes on an all-weekend bender, gets beaten up, and even – the horror! – goes to a gay bar and gets a blow job from a guy in a dark room. He finally ends up in a spaced out threeway with two women that comes perilously close to looking like Zalman King porn, but for the look on Fassbender’s face, which is something I don’t think I’ll forget anytime soon: an anguished, joyless, Francis Bacon-esque primal scream, as he frantically searches for the orgasm that will obliterate his feelings, while despairing at the hell he’s doing and how he got there. As the film circles around to where it began, we’re left wondering whether Brandon will break his pattern, or if he even wants to.

I watched Shame with an uncomfortable degree of familiarity. I comforted myself that McQueen was presenting an extreme case of sexual addiction, which was highly aesthetised, making true identification with Brandon difficult. Unlike the real world, Shame doesn’t feature used condoms, split lubricant, stained sheets, trips to the clap clinic or any of the other earthy details of sex that make it less of a porn fantasy and more of a messy, funny reality – but maybe that’s his point, as he wants to show a man for whom the fantasy of sex has replaced his reality. That being said, it was a frighteningly plausible characterisation, repeating situations, conversations and moods that I and a lot of gay men I know have dipped in and out of from time to time.

I’m still unsure as to whether McQueen wants us to feel empathy for his tortured protagonist, or whether the muscularity of his film-making is just another version of the arthouse sadism perpetuated by Mel Gibson in The Passion of the Christ or the movies of Lars von Trier “Here’s the ugly reality, fuckers”, the film seems to be saying, as it flexes its arthouse porn muscles: “Can you take it?” In the end, it’s saved, I think, by the extremity of its commitment to Brandon’s experience, and by Fassbender himself, who withholds nothing from the camera’s gaze. As depressing and exhausting an experience as it was, I can’t wait to see it again.

Thank God that my evening movie was writer-director Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, a film that I’ve fallen in love with since seeing and which I can’t quite bring myself to let go of. Like the two cute bearded protagonists, my experience of this film was a one-night encounter that’s lingered in my mind for days afterwards. It was also the perfect antidote to the stylised despair of Shame. It’s an extremely well-written and directed piece of low budget filmmaking that’s remarkably perceptive about the lives of gay men in a post-AIDS, post-Stonewall world, and creates one of the sweetest and most compelling love stories I’ve seen on film in this or any other year.

Weekend is the story of Russell (played by the seriously hot Tom Cullen), a sweet-faced man living a quietly-out-but not-shouting-about it existence in Nottingham, living in a council flat with charity store decor and working as a lifeguard in a local pool. After a Friday night of curry, booze and spliff with his straight mates, he heads to a gay bar, and is last seen being drunkenly cuddled by a man, as another cuter guy looks at him from a distance. In a clever teased out opening sequence, we discover that Russell has ended up in bed not with the cuddler, but with the “other” cuter guy, Glen (Chris New): a sharper, more streetwise guy who’s as verbose and opinionated as Russell is quiet and reserved.

While we never see their first night of drunken sex, we get to see the more interesting morning after. As Russell makes instant coffee in some 1970s charity store mugs, Glen tries out a fairly standard post-graduate art student affectation – he shoves a dictaphone into Russell’s face and asks that he records his memories of the night before. Though it’s a slightly pretentious narrative device, it’s in keeping with Glen, who is slightly pretentious. It also works nicely to get the lovers to reveal themselves to each other, and reflect, with some nervous embarrassment, on the strangeness of the “shag first, get to know each other later” ritual inherent in casual gay sex.

As they talk, eat, fight, have sex, do drugs, fall asleep and wake up together over the course of Saturday and Sunday, we become as intimate with and as deeply invested the couple as they do in each other. Haigh’s writing, as acted intuitively and sensitively by his two leads, is remarkably perceptive about the rush of nervousness, expectation, self-protection and optimism that comes with meeting a new lover, and the two-steps-forward, three-steps-back quality of getting to know someone and finding points of connection. Despite, or possibly because of, their great differences, the pair seem to bring out the best in each other: Glen’s confidence wakes Russell up and forces him to consider the strength of his own desire and his wish to live more openly and comfortably with his sexuality, whereas Russell’s lack of guile and emotional openness allow Glen to drop his prickly defences and his world-weary bravado.

The characters’ growing intimacy is helped enormously by two committed, charming, charismatic (and cute as fuck) actors, and beautiful camera work, which finds remarkable intimacy in the faces and bodies of the actors without ever becoming voyeuristic. Many of the scenes are filmed, Mike Leigh style, in long 10 minute unbroken takes, allowing the audience to watch the characters interact in real time, and track every changing facet of Russell and Glen’s interactions.

While I’m sure the film will resonate with straight and gay audiences, there’s a very particular gayness to the sensibility of this film that I appreciated, and which only seems to be present in only a handful of other films. (Tom Ford’s A Single Man, John Maybury’s Love Is the Devil and Almodovar’s Bad Education all spring to mind, but none of them have the optimism or lush romanticism of Weekend).  I was impressed at how many references to gay life (gay marriage, Grindr, coming out, Rupert Graves’ willy in A Room With A View) were worked into the drama in an organic way, without too much signposting or party political broadcasting. Through the character of Russell, the film posits without judgment the isolation of the single gay man in a largely straight world: Russell seems largely closeted in his job while his straight colleagues happily talk about sex with women, and he tones down his sex life around his straight friends, who exist in a very different world of marriage and children’s birthday parties. Haigh and his cast are especially adept at mapping the various tricks gay men play on themselves and each other to hide their vulnerabilities and desires: a smitten Russell types a text message to Glen ending with a kiss (x), then thinks better of it, deletes it, and replaces it with a more neutral smiley face (:0)); by contrast, Glen hides the pain of an old sexual betrayal behind camp banter about his sex life with his mates in the pub, and persistently repeats to Russell that he doesn’t “do boyfriends” – a catch cry that becomes less convincing as the weekend goes on.

Despite their subterfuge, macho posturing, over-cautiousness, and the odd bit of game-playing, Russell and Glen manage to find their way towards each other. (A couple of lines of coke on Saturday night don’t seem to hurt in that regard). By Sunday morning, they’re entwined physically and emotionally enough to reveal their most fragile selves to each other. In a long beautifully played scene, Glen asks whether Russell is interested in his lovers’ coming out stories because he didn’t get a chance to come out to his own parents. Glen then suggests that Russell replays a coming out conversation to him, as if he was Russell’s dad. (“Ignore the fact that we’ve just had sex”, he adds cheekily). Glen then makes one of those acts of generosity that one hopes doesn’t just happen in the movies: he tells Russell (as his father) that he loves him and that he’s proud of him. It’s at this point that I and about half the audience started crying, as if the Gestalt-therapy of the scene had worked its restorative powers on us, too. Without stepping out of the reality of the drama, Haigh and his cast tapped into a hidden pain existing in a lot of gay men: their loneliness and isolation from their families, the profound lack of validation from an early age that endures into adult life, and the ways in which gay men look to lovers to fulfil that emotional void. It’s the single most affecting and beautiful scene I’ve watched in a film this year.

As the weekend (and the film) moved slowly but inevitably to its end, I was on tenderhooks, waiting to see whether Russell and Glen would go the distance, and silently, desperately clawing my seat in the hope that they could hang onto their burgeoning connection. The ending – which was nicely left open enough to let audiences draw their own conclusions – left me with a surprising feeling of optimism about the possibility of love, and a ravenous hunger to be in a relationship again. It’s also inspired in me a huge excitement about the birth of a new generation of gay cinema that can map our experiences honestly, humorously and affectionately. Given the rapturous reviews the film has received thus far (including the New York Times, which hailed it as it “astonishingly self-assured”, “unassumingly profound” and “one of the most satisfying love stories you are likely to see on screen this year”), it appears that gay audiences everywhere are gagging for intelligently made gay cinema that reflects our lives to ourselves and to others. Weekend seems to go one step further and achieve something even more ephemeral: releasing gay audiences from their cynicism and complacency and helping us connect with our inner Room With A View-loving romanticism.

Weekend made me laugh, made me cry, and made me think – and I’m not sure that you can ask much more of art as a way of informing your life. It’s a wonderful achievement, a great example of good low-budget British filmmaking, and I hope it leads to great things for Andrew Haigh and his cast and crew. Until then, I’m quite happy to keep dreaming about falling in love with Russell, moving into (and redecorating) his flat, wearing his flat cap and having his gay babies.

One can but dream – what else is there?