As far back as his 1996 short, “A Summer Dress,” in which a gay man has sex with a woman and enjoys wearing her clothes, French writer-director François Ozon (“Swimming Pool,” “8 Women”) has explored gender and sexual fluidity in his films. So it’s not a surprise to find him examining transgenderism in his latest, “The New Girlfriend.” What is surprising is his mealy-mouthed approach, which may stem from the antecedent material, a chilly 1985 Edgar Award-winning short story by British mystery writer Ruth Rendell. The LGBT movement has made almost incalculable progress in the last thirty years and, in her writing, Rendell (who died last spring) was hardly awash in sympathy for her fellow humans even when they did cleave to convention. Still, Ozon’s flair for melodrama – an out-of-fashion genre that doesn’t receive its due – as well as his careful treatment of the complexity of female friendship saves this from being a purely nasty piece of work. Continue Reading →
Pictured here is my amazing cousin Martine, as featured in a lengthy New York Magazine profile. Ironically, though she shares my suspicion of DNA bonds, she’s a new millennium incarnation of our outlaw grandmother Masha Rubenfire. A Polish Jewish immigrant who ran a successful Salem, Mass, brothel, Rubenfire made it all happen when her schnorrer husband ditched her with two small kids and no language skills. Martine–who looks more like Rubenfire than anyone else in our family does–has constructed a gender reality, a financial reality, a relationship reality, a technological reality, and a spiritual reality not only for herself but for others, including me. Say what we will but the blood is fierce in our line. Rubenfire helps from beyond the grave.
Happily, Weekend, a Brit-born film billed as a “(sort of) love story between two guys over a cold weekend in October,” proves a very significant exception. In fact, it may be the only real romance I’ve seen on a big screen in years. Certainly it’s the only good one.
British in the very best sense of the word, Weekend is a film that neither showboats nor panders, so you must be fully receptive to register its particular brand of gently paced, adamantly phrased acuity. When I first saw it back in June, I missed some of its potency since I was accompanied by a person whom I’d just begun dating. This is highly ill-advised for a movie critic, at least this one, for we were so agog that the movie mostly served as a smart, sexy echo of what was transpiring between us. But when I saw it again last week in the cold light of day — four months into my romance (a do-or-die relationship checkpoint) and at the extremely sobering hour of 10:40 A.M. — the heft of this film’s subtle wisdom finally landed.
It begins as Russell, a 20-something lifeguard with sweet, darting eyes and the particular stoop of a tall man angling for invisibility, prepares for a night out. As he scrubs himself in the bath and smokes a bowl, he wears the blank expression of someone well acquainted with if not resigned to his solitude. This solitude carries into the next scene, in which he too-politely fields questions at a house party comprised of straight couples, though he clearly knows everyone there quite well. It’s only when he ducks out to a gay club that he begins to animate, catapulting himself onto the dance floor with a determination that betrays the degree to which he’s had to steel himself to even enter the arena. He locks eyes with a cute, shorter boy who quickly rebuffs him, then reverts to a shy deference when a less appealing bloke comes onto him like gangbusters. Talk about method cinema: just when Russell’s polite quiet grows intolerable, we cut to him solemnly bringing two cups of morning coffee back to his bed where the cute boy from the night before is already sitting up, nervy and bemused. “You brushed your teeth!” he says. “Now my mouth still tastes of cock and bum while yours tastes of mint.” Russell’s relieved bemusement is ours as well.
Thus sets the dance. Where Russell is nice, Glen, as the cute boy is called, is bold. He even whips out a tape recorder and interviews Russell about the events of last night, including their initial disconnect and the ugliness of the guy who subsequently pounced. (“A troll!” Glen crows.) With a new crinkle to his eyes, Russell takes it all in stride, at least until Glen wonders aloud why Russell wouldn’t let him fuck him, who stiffly answers, “I’d thought we’d had a lovely time and I’m sorry I didn’t make the grade.” His hurt is overt.
It is in this moment that the two encounter their first opportunity to earn each other’s trust, and they handle it well — as does the film itself. For Russell’s unadulterated response cuts through Glen’s flippancy, who, despite his edgy wit, displays the rare grace necessary to be visibly humbled by another person’s emotional honesty. Russell takes note, but before we’re subjected to any remonstrations or mea culpas they may exchange, the scene shifts to the boys exchanging numbers in the hallway, neighbors passing by with a studied casualness. It’s an admirable, and characteristic, restraint on the part of writer/director Andrew Haigh suggesting that we witnesses to burgeoning romance should always be left on its margins so that we may explore our own projections. How wonderfully un-modern.
As the two spend more time together that afternoon, they subtly power-play as any two new lovers who are not immediately assuming prescribed roles do. Glen pokes at Russell’s apparent lack of ambition or sophistication with a barrage of questions about his experience with travel and art. With a surprising wiliness, Russell in turn dares Glen to ride “bucky” — to perch on the handlebars as Russell bikes them over the bridge — neatly exposing Glen’s physical timidity with an image lifted from the French New Wave. The two also begin to expose (not just disclose) themselves, a necessary and terrifying step in any real intimacy. Glen unmasks his earnestness by confiding that his art project, in which he is taping post-mortem interviews with all his tricks, is to demystify without profaning “what men do with each other in bed.”
“Of course,” he adds. “Gays will only see it because it’s about sex, and straights won’t bother.”
A little later, when Russell reveals that he grew up in foster care and does not even know his parents, Glen’s response is once again extemporaneously, jarringly honest: he grows intensely aroused, which in turn gets Russell off, no doubt wickedly sick of people’s frightened, demure pity. It’s an encounter in which their wildly divergent natures serve them.
The push-and-pull of early romance being what it is, then, it is at that moment that Glen informs Russell that the next day he will be leaving the country for two years.
Later that night, Glen and Russell duck out of Glen’s own going-away party and indulge in a coke-fueled debate about the worthiness of gay marriage. An eternally vigilant yap dog, Glen approaches the issue from both ends at once, lambasting U.K. gays for not campaigning more strenuously for marriage rights while at the same time wondering why anyone would campaign for access to that claustrophobic heterosexual institution. Russell, as usual, takes a simpler tack. Recognizing that he’s still not comfortably open about his sexuality, he marvels over the bravery required for two men to stand up in front of the world and declare their love.
It devolves from there and suddenly Russell, weepy and strung out, is calling Glen out for distancing from his emotions. He’s right. Glen’s response to betrayal, whether it’s a cheating boyfriend or gay bashing, is to abstract his pain into a political or intellectual theory — a common reaction in smart, stylish people who can whistle in the dark so cleverly that no one calls them on their bullshit. Russell, on the other hand, despite the fact that he seems more timorous, demonstrates the temerity to approach his pain head-on. He’s self-possessed enough to admit when he is upset, courageous enough to admit when he is scared. This capacity to keep it simple and true emerged earlier, when Glen’s friend slanders him to Russell, who is repelled by the lack of loyalty. Despite a background that could so easily inspire the mindset of “orphans can’t be choosy,” Russell expects friends to stick by him. Instead of settling for crumbs, he’s transformed the emotional deprivation of his childhood into a yearning for connections that aren’t just filling space, and developed the muscle to withstand the emptiness until he finds them. It’s a higher form of bravery, one rarely, if ever, celebrated onscreen or, really, in our culture. It’s the equivalent of lauding the emotional independence of an unaffiliated woman rather than dismissing her as a fucked-up cat lady.
“I know you want a relationship,” Russell now cries, to which Glen shakes his head adamantly, “I don’t want a boyfriend right now.” Overwrought, Russell retires to the bathroom to collect himself. After a second, Glen turns on the saddest, sweetest music he can find.
That’s when the purest moment of onscreen romance all year takes place, for true romance always requires hurtling past your comfort zone in the spirit of great faith. In Russell’s case, his moment of bravery is to reenter that room despite the rejection he feels; Glen’s is to tolerate the discomfort of a naked display rather than fleeing it.
There, framed by a window, they commence a kiss more tender than hungry. It’s one lit square in a dark industrial building, yellow hope drifting out into the sorrow of an urban night sky, and the contrast offers a resounding beauty even more effective in a film composed of mostly inconspicuous cinematography, the visual equivalent of that Sherwood Anderson line, “I have come to this lonely place and here is this other.”
There’s more, of course — with a film like this, there’s always more, both within and without its unique city limits. But I’ll leave you to excavate that while a part of me lingers, hankie clenched, in the rich, rewarding darkness of the IFC Theater that day. Grateful for the confirmation that my lover and I were not crazy to continue on our own uncharted path despite our radically different natures. Grateful for the reminder that ambiguity — for, not surprisingly, this is the final note of this film — is the most we can expect from any romance that we improvise rather than inherit, embrace rather than enforce. Grateful to surrender to a movie so worth its while.