In a Q & A session after the screening of Joe Swanberg’s latest production with longtime collaborator Greta Gerwig, Swanberg stated that he likes to make films that fill the voids left by others; he had not seen a film that dealt with the reality of long distance relationships in any authentic way and hence Nights And Weekends was born. Chronicling the relationship between Swanberg’s James and Gerwig’s Mattie through three episodes, Nights and Weekends does for romance what The Blair Witch Project did for horror — made it relevant, real, and relatable.
Opening with a weekend visit from Mattie in Chicago, episode one illustrates the truths of months of a relationship compacted into one weekend. The frantic love-making, the reiteration of why they love each other, the pressure of ensuring there is affection, fun and significance in everything they do. Episode two sees James visiting Mattie in New York where the strain of their sacrificial relationship starts to show, but affection remains. And then a final third wherein James is again in New York on a business trip, twelve months after their relationship has ended and the anxieties of appropriateness and unfinished feelings comes to the fore.
Above all, the film’s greatest achievement is its perceptive portrayal of how real relationships work. There is no grand speech-making, no preconceived vernacular, no soft focus or swooning backing track; just beautiful moments of alone time, pointless conversations as they lie in awkward positions, fidgeting with each other as they share snippets about themselves, the friendship behind their love and their comfort in each other’s company. There are equally seemingly pointless arguments wherein the true pressures and sadness behind their geographical dilemma come to the fore at unpredictable times, but isn’t that just the way it happens in the real world? Before you know it, a conversation has turned into an argument and you don’t really know why it all started? Without spoon-feeding sentiment, the collection of telling, mostly improvised moments have been edited together to form a picture of the fundamentals of any relationship; compacted into nights and weekends in James and Mattie’s case, eighty minutes for the audience.
Having beautifully and simply represented an authentic long-distance relationship, the film’s episode three (as I have now christened it) is equally precise in exposing the power shifts, clumsy communication, intensity and confusion of a post-break up encounter. In this shrewd final chapter, James contacts Mattie during a business trip to New York. The insecurity of knowing the right and wrong way to behave around an ex-lover, particularly one with whom you never really fell out of love, is captured in Mattie’s awkwardness and James’s nonchalant confidence. He now has a new girlfriend, but we’re not really sure that Mattie knows this. Regardless, he seems to have decided to play it cool, as though he is fine with the way their relationship ended and is more than capable of keeping himself together in a new friendly acquaintance.
Mattie on the other hand is more willing to acknowledge that she has no idea what to do with her hands now that she can’t hug him, nor whether it is appropriate to be quite as exposed in her tête-à-tête now that the boundaries have shifted. The result of this dichotomy eventually proves too much for Mattie who, in the film’s most poignant scene, breaks down in tears only moments after cheerily pushing James out of the room so she can get changed. James’ awkwardness has only been exposed briefly in his mildly jumbled voicemail invitation for Mattie to attend a photo shoot with him, but we have watched Mattie fumble her way distractedly through an afternoon alone, at the end of which her time with James proves too much to bear. This moment of restrained but desolate weeping encapsulates the confusion, desperation, mourning, embarrassment, and absolute sadness of an overwhelming situation. It is perfect.
The sexual and emotional games being played are all the more intense for what is not said and complements perfectly the aforementioned reliance on real-world activity, where we do not always have the vocabulary or the backbone to say what we really feel. The ‘cherry on top’ for those who are disappointed in James’s insensitivity throughout this episode is the final scene flashback of the end of their last weekend together as a couple. It seems that Mattie has had the courage to terminate their struggling union, for the sake of sanity and ongoing heartache. James is sobbing uncontrollably to a Mattie who, whilst sad, seems quite assured in her decision. This footnotes James’s arrogant behaviour thus far with a tinge of possible retribution for the despair of this moment and perhaps equally for Mattie’s confidence in taking the lead in this decision. So James is exposed as equally human and equally aware of the underlying magnitude of their most recent time together.
In a film so observant, so natural and so authentic, absolute credit must be given to these filmmakers/actors who expose everything of themselves (both physical and otherwise) for the sake of this perfectly formed tale. As many would say is the best way to represent yourself in a relationship, Swanberg and Gerwig seem to have adopted the maxim that ‘being yourself’ is the best advice, and for the sake of this film, transferring their own college experiences of long distance relationships has served the film with abundant success. It is my particular delight that Swanberg stated their intention to fill the gaps between other films’ narratives. In an industry swamped with not just happy endings, but now endings that make the audience happy (plot twists and all) it is so refreshing to watch something that taps into a point of association with the audience; that is not about a vicarious thrill, but perhaps a reassurance that what happens in the real world is not an exclusive experience.
Just as months of a long-distance relationship are compacted into nights and weekends, the truths of relationships in general are compacted into this eighty minute impression of what is happening twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, the world over. Like the real world there are no gimmicks, no grand controversy, just the same honesty and improvisation we all employ at one time or another.