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Film of the Week: Le Week-End

By Jonathan Romney on October 30, 2013 in Film Comment, Jonathan Romney's Film of the Week

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Le Week-End

I honestly can't remember seeing a more off-putting trailer than the one for Le Week-End. It features Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan flitting around the streets of Paris, lashings of breezy accordion, and then the stars—with Jeff Goldblum, and with Duncan in an amusing hat—imitating the Madison dance from Godard’s Band of Outsiders. It all suggests excruciating whimsy, a coy entertainment for Francophile viewers d'un certain âge—people, perhaps, like Duncan's character Meg Burrows, whose choice of reading on the Eurostar is Muriel Barbery's soft-philosophy best-seller The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

In truth, the trailer may not be a radical misrepresentation of Le Week-End, but conversely, it doesn't catch the distinctive blend of jollity and industrial-strength sourness of this latest collaboration between director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi. Over the last decade, Kureishi—once the hip young tearaway of British film and literature—has proved to be an insightful analyst of the discontents of aging, collaborating with Michell on a series of simple, at times austere vignettes that are certainly the director's best films. Le Week-End may seem a light divertissement compared to The Mother (03, about an elderly woman rediscovering sex with a youngish stud—played by Daniel Craig!) and Venus (06, in which an old man, Peter O'Toole, is fixated on a teenager). But Le Week-End's melancholy and sometimes downright bitter disillusionment are plain to see behind the ooh-la-la veneer.

The story follows a late-middle-aged British couple, Meg and Nick Burrows, celebrating their anniversary with a weekend in Paris. She's a schoolteacher wearily and more or less fondly indulging her husband, often sniping at him with an acidity that suggests her regret at missed romantic opportunities and at her squandered intellectual potential. And he's a career academic beset with nostalgia for the glories that seemed to lie before him in his Cambridge youth; he now faces an ignoble career end, forced to take early retirement.

Le Week-End

Oh, well, they'll always have Paris—but dream holidays have a way of bringing out a lifetime's worth of resentment. The pair arrive at their drab Montmartre hotel; Meg recoils at the beige decor and insists on going somewhere fancier. They take a cab, which whizzes them through the city, the Arc de Triomphe wheeling over their heads. For a nasty moment, it feels as if we're in one of Claude Lelouch's more touristic productions—which is the ironic point, since harsh reality quickly elbows glossy fantasy aside. The couple check in at a much fancier establishment, which means a perfect view of the Eiffel Tower and a towering tariff to match. But just as Nick is never quite able to put down the plastic bag he drags around, the couple can't leave behind their home lives. He thinks this is a good time to discuss their bathroom tiles; she can't resist laying her marital discontent on the table.

Being a British film written by a leading novelist/playwright, it's only to be expected that Le Week-End is somewhat talky; at times, the Paris locations come across largely as backdrops for the dialogue. And while the dialogue is pithy, even brutal, the lines aren't always polished zingers: Meg moans about the prospect of his "partially erect sausage”; Nick complains that "over the last five or six years, your vagina has become a closed book." The repartee can feel creaky as much as brittle, but it does evoke the way an intelligent but intellectually and emotionally exhausted couple might snipe at each other—and the language takes on real vigor as delivered by Broadbent and Duncan.

You absolutely believe in them as a couple. There's no one like Broadbent for looking and sounding flattened by life, and for suggesting a rattlesnake acerbity beneath a soft, amiable exterior; it’s easy to imagine how a man so seemingly affable, yet razor smart, might have attracted a woman like Meg in her no doubt chilly youthful prime. Duncan is astute casting: for all Meg's now comfortable weariness, she has the demeanor of a sexual and intellectual alpha female who's married beneath her, with all the disappointment and barely concealed rage that implies.

Le Week-End

Duncan is superb with her weary detachment, mixing a tolerant fondness into the sometimes shockingly overt contempt that Meg shows Nick—although that seems to be part of the tender sadomasochistic bond they share. There's also a curious resonance—perhaps accidental, but eerie nonetheless—for anyone who's recently watched Before Midnight, the third part of Richard Linklater's romantic trilogy, in which the cold truths of marital fatigue came home to roost. Duncan looks uncannily like Julie Delpy 20 years on, and the echoes of the French actress's scathing Céline in Linklater's film bring a fortuitous bonus dimension to Le Week-End.

Things come to a head at a dinner party held by Nick's old Cambridge friend Morgan (Jeff Goldblum), an American academic who's living the Parisian dream. He has a chic apartment, a new glamorous young wife, a prestigious publisher, a gaggle of highbrow friends—and a misguided belief that his English friends must be living a perfect existence. Nick glumly bonds with Morgan's neglected son, a lonesome stoner (Olly Alexander) found listening to Nick Drake (whose songs are synonymous with autumnal Cambridge melancholia). Meg, meanwhile, flirts with a Proust specialist, then lets Nick know she's open to an affair. The climax is a dinner-table tour de force by Nick, who announces to everyone: "I am truly fucked." As can only happen in such theatrical set-pieces, which magically transcend the embarrassments of reality, he achieves a true moment of desolate grandeur.

Nick and Meg are fucked indeed, as are we all sooner or later, but the wit and acuity of Le Week-End is that it enables us to acknowledge the fact through articulate, if somewhat self-deceiving, characters who express their dilemma with some style. Kureishi's craft lies in not making these characters too lovable, or even tolerable. In real life, they'd bore you rigid; on screen they become, in all their disgruntlement, quite mesmerizing.

Le Week-End

Goldblum, meanwhile, plays everyone's idea of Jeff Goldblum, almost a Saturday Night Live impersonation of himself, with added Rive Gauche smugness. But we haven't seen him doing his routine with such zest for years, and his bizarre twitchy inflections pepper the film with a dash of arch cosmopolitan glamour. When the trio round things off with a finale of le Madison, it's a lovely curtain call—an imitation of an imitation, two Brits and an American impersonating three French actors doing a jukebox dance à l'américaine. It's a neat touch of the knowingness which the French call second degré: the film embraces its own artifice, even phoniness, in a sweet, light kiss-off to a scenario that, at heart, couldn't be bleaker or more bitterly real.

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