Caught somewhere between the dialogue-rich, European snapshots of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy and the deep humanism and leisurely beats of a Mike Leigh drama, Le Week-End is a splendid, albeit salty look at two septuagenarians spending a few days in Paris to mark their 30th anniversary. The man is Nick Burrows (Jim Broadbent), a weary college professor recently sacked from his teaching post. The woman is Meg (Lindsay Duncan), who wants to retreat from her dogged husband and find her own freedom. The couple ventures through the City of Love over three days of happiness and misery, as we wonder how their love will end up – faded away or reinvigorated?
Nick is still deeply in love with Meg, who has aged gracefully and has not lost the vigor or figure of a much younger woman. She knows that she controls him with an icy grip and that he will concede to let her have moments of spontaneous fun. Meg wants the trip to be a special time for her – perhaps she can start making an effort to learn a new language. However, Nick wants them to get time together and rekindle some of the spark they had when they visited Paris over their honeymoon decades earlier. The first sip of the Burrows’ life was intoxicating, but now they’re reaching the end of the bottle many years later, when the drink is not as tasty.
With every small turn or decision, there is a larger reaction from the opposite party. At Le Week-End’s start, Nick has booked a modest hotel, but Meg is disgruntled by the beige colour of the room and having to lug her suitcase up a flight of stairs. To cope with her hubby’s thriftiness, she runs out into a taxi and flees to accommodations that are more lavish, a suite with a stunning, sparkling view of the Eiffel Tower. In the first ten minutes, we get a revealing glimpse at the incompatibility of this relationship between the firm, fussy Meg and the humble, wearied Nick.
Le Week-End, which marks the fourth collaboration between director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) and playwright Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette), has a wildly shifting tone. It works though, since the couple’s married life is filled with equal parts joy and bitterness, and exchanges both sweet and sour. A few moments after Meg proposes a divorce, Nick and her are hopping through the avenues before stopping for an arresting kiss that draws some whistles from passersby. Later, when she seduces him with the promise of sex, it is cut short when he infers that she is having an affair.
Between Michell’s film and 2013’s Before Midnight, hotel suites are the new go-to location for marital bliss turning on itself in cinema. Like that drama, there are also a handful of one-take scenes, which Nathalie Durand films with an assured hand. In addition, Jeff Goldblum makes a brief but memorable appearance as Morgan, an old friend of Nick’s, who invites him to a small party at his Paris loft. Morgan has reaped success as a journalist and author and Goldblum’s always animated nature makes him a terrific foil for the flustered Nick.
The film’s shifting moods, spurred by the characters and Kureishi’s ping-pong dialogue (full of prickly one-liners and heartfelt speeches), could have felt uneven without such terrific talent. Thankfully, both leads are fantastic here.
Broadbent is one of the most reliable English actors of the last several years and his turn here is a career highlight. As Nick, he drags the feelings of regret and wanting on his face. He stares frequently as his more youthful wife, still in awe of her beauty if not her lack of grace. “You’re hot,” he tells her. “Hot but cold.” His eyes are hungry, but his hands are hesitant. In a speech late in the film, he tears into his mopey state to prove to his wife how much she means to him, and it is hard to think of another actor who could deliver such cutting lines with such a drained demeanor yet still exhibit such colourful emotion.
Duncan is also masterful, trying to cling on to the shreds of that fiery passion she once possessed – although this would mean letting go of her demure husband. She varies from exuberance when opening the suite’s mini-bar fridge to averting his longing gaze when he tries to initiate sex a few moments later. The actress is spiteful yet never unsympathetic, and she uses the script’s sly tongue to her advantage. “You are the postman who never knocks. I’m not sure you’ve got any balls,” she spits at her hubby. Meg wants to roam freely around the city, with the vibrancy and passion featured in French New Wave cinema (Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part appears on their hotel television, and she will later re-create one of that film’s iconic scenes.) Michell also must love French films, as he shows the bouncy freedoms of Parisian life in tightly edited, fast-paced scenes of the couple running through the city streets.
It may not be anything revolutionary, or do anything drastic for the genre, but as an intimate, deeply moving, sharply written drama about two people falling in and out of love, Le Week-End is a terrific placeholder until Hawke and Delpy grace the screens again.
Le Week-End is a richly realized and exceptionally acted film that's bursting with humour and humanity.