Writer/director Andrew Haigh recently told the New York Times that his newest film, 45 Years — which dips into the lives of a heterosexual septuagenarian couple who have been married for the titular amount of time — “is like a bookend” to his breakout movie about a time-bracketed gay micro-relationship, Weekend. “My last film was very much about the beginnings of a relationship, the early flourish,” he said in the interview. “I’m interested in how we understand ourselves in our relationships and how we define ourselves.”
Seeing the films as thematically linked is no stretch. And, it turns out, considering the two together, along with Haigh’s HBO series Looking, is a completely rewarding task. (If 45 Years is the bookend, Looking can certainly be read as a book-middle.) Haigh, it seems, is building a fortress of small, often anticlimactic and even anti-dramatic works about individual relationships that amounts to something far larger.
[Spoilers of Weekend and 45 Years ensue.]
I saw 45 Years after reading Haigh’s comments; I saw Weekend long before. And to this point, I’d been appreciative — but never wholly enamored — of Haigh’s slow, naturalistic, and emotionally understated work. I’d even been frustrated, to an extent, by Weekend‘s failure to pack the same emotional force as Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, in a romance similarly threatened by the audience’s knowledge of an impending moment of expiration, as stated explicitly early on in the film. (Both Before Sunrise and Weekend follow new lovers aware of the fact that they’ll soon be in separate countries; both end in parting scenes at train stations). Others have had similar complaints about Haigh’s work, though the criticism is often aimed at Looking.
I wondered why Weekend allowed itself — emulating the formula of the “Before” movies, but with two men — to be overpowered by discussions of gayness, its characters self-reflexively unpacking the Gay Experience between sessions of gay sex. It seemed topically confining, as though its leads — Russell and Glen — were gay Dora the Explorers, forced to explain exactly what they were doing as they were doing it, how they were living as they were living it. By the time their brief romance was ending, it felt like the end of a class discussion where students happened to be fucking, the story’s emotional impact lessened (though, let’s be real, I still cried) by this fact.
Looking was frustrating for different reasons: Its characters weren’t particularly intriguing, and most of what it was offering was character. With no end in sight (until it was canceled, of course), the show was just as much about the languid middles of relationships as it was about beginnings and ends. It never strove much for humor or drama, preferring an honest, middle-ground banality. But this evolved into something relevant and compelling — creating feelings of intimacy from slowness and softness, like a dull but dependable partner. When Looking was finally canceled, a feeling of weekly comfort suddenly disappeared. When these characters I lackadaisically watched were removed from my life, I missed them and their world: their languorous existences — completely uncharacteristic of serial drama — were somehow dear, and my reaction to the end of the series mirrored the loss of something sweet, easy, regular, and longish-lasting. Perhaps Haigh was being far more strategic than it initially seemed about replicating the addicting boredom of sustained intimacy.
45 Years, in its title alone, confirms that there’s a sharp, even strategic nature to his at-times-ambling stories, and in their consecutive release (Weekend: shortest relationship, Looking: medium-in-every-way relationships, 45 Years: longest relationship). It follows Kate and Geoff Mercer (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay), a seemingly grounded, nonchalantly childless couple on the verge of celebrating their 45th anniversary. In the first scene, Geoff receives a letter in German, notifying him that the corpse of his ex-girlfriend Katya has, after around 50 years, been found in an Alpine glacier, and remains stuck in it. Geoff wonders whether the body is therefore the same as it was when she died — while his 70-year-old body is something of a map of the years since. This eerie image of Katya’s preservation leads him to become suddenly interested in whatever self he left back in the Alps, to detach from his life with Kate.
Meanwhile, Kate has, for all of these years, known that Geoff’s first love died in a hiking accident, but the news about the body suddenly sparks a series of questions about the singularity of her relationship to her husband. Until now, she’d perhaps ignored evidence and seen herself and her husband as soul mates. But this frozen ghost begins to haunt her, making her question her uniqueness and her irreplaceability in Geoff’s eyes. Does he see her as just a poor imitation of his first love? Her name is practically the same — and then she sees a picture of Katya, and their similarity further fuels such suspicions.
Midway through the film, Kate wanders up into the attic, discovers a reel of images of Geoff’s ex, and places them into a projector. There, boldly illuminated, is the revelation that Katya was pregnant when she died — an aspect of the story Kate never knew. At that moment, the whole foundation of Kate’s relationship to her husband, and to their own childless marriage, begins to decay. Later, when she’s on the phone with the anniversary-party DJ, Kate abruptly requests “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” — the unequivocally sad song about love as delusion — like it’s a last-minute discovery whose meaning she doesn’t quite know.
While 45 Years generally underscores how a relationship of such duration can be founded on mounting falsehoods, Haigh seems attuned to the ways in which this might particularly impact a heterosexual couple. At the core of 45 Years is an absence — a child — that sparks the contemplation of and submission to a multitude of absences. Everything their relationship was not weighs down on Kate. It’s not that Haigh is suggesting that a couple needs to have a child, but rather that this couple’s failure to conform to society’s norms isn’t the result of their autonomy from those norms so much as an expression of deeper anxieties about their relationship. 45 Years explores how procreative pressures combined with pressures towards longevity – especially on an older generation of straight couples – could lead to a life of mounting delusion that, given some trigger, might one day become unbearably visible, leading one to wonder when they lost themselves.
While this film traces the effects of an absence at the core of a long heterosexual relationship, Weekend is, as mentioned, especially interested in norms associated with homosexual (and millennial) intimacy. Glen is a conceptual artist who’s documenting his brief physical encounters with men in interviews with these partners. Central to Weekend is a notion of continuous, ephemeral presences, stretching out to infinity, until they likewise blend into a sense of absence. Haigh doesn’t seem to posit a heightened form of romance or to claim that doing away with definition would lead people to unity and a more organic sense of love. Rather, across Weekend, Looking, and 45 Years, Haigh’s romantic triptych feels overwhelmingly rich, as it mines the shortcomings, barriers, traps, and isolated moments of complete beauty across various forms and lengths of romance, suggesting there’s no escape from any and all of these.
With Weekend pondering fleetingness, 45 Years pondering forever, and Looking pondering a less-extreme in-between, Haigh has explored the durational norms we’ve come to associate with the hetero/homosexual binary, and found a potent, saddening unity therein. Even the self-reflexive, discursive excavation of gay dating norms in Weekend seems, suddenly, less irksome in the context of Haigh’s body of work, of his attempt to “understand ourselves in our relationships and how we define ourselves.”
A recurring image in most romances, and especially in Haigh’s films, is of lovers cuddling in near-sleep — like sex, it’s a vulnerable and adorably silly geometric attempt to transcend self. In 45 Years, Haigh lingers on Charlotte Rampling’s open eyes as she presses the side of her face into her husband’s chest: she’s contemplating her aloneness. Similarly, Haigh’s works, with his general lack of attention to climax and distaste for overt drama, emerge as sad but all the more vivid, and even structured, when viewed side by side, when we’re aware of both their unity and isolation. No matter the length of a relationship — from a weekend to a season to 45 years — lovers will find themselves here, in bed, pushing against the boundaries of solitude. That’s an act that’ll never stop being compelling.