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Le Week-End

le-weekend

For all its wry humour and fleeting warmth, Le Week-End revolves around two fairly traumatic thoughts. Firstly, in old age we will all be haunted by regret. Secondly, the only way of coping with that regret is to desperately cling to whatever love we’ve accrued along the way. The merits of this kind of love – the hard callus of intimacy that remains long after passion’s initial fracture – have previously been explored by writer Hanif Kureishi, and his latest film is another study of enduring human bonds.

As we follow Nick (Jim Broadbent) and Meg (Lindsay Duncan) on their thirtieth anniversary trip to Paris, we witness the full emotional spectrum of such long term coupledom: affection, warmth, comfort, boredom, frustration, contempt, hatred. Meg can exhibit any one of these emotions within the space of one scene, while Nick mainly wears the baffled expression of a man whose intelligence and self-awareness has not saved him from simmering anxiety – in short, a typical twenty-first century beast: lucid yet lost.

Nick and Meg return to the scene of their honeymoon only to find the bohemian hotel of their glory days has been painted ominously beige. It’s all too much for Meg, who seems to conclude that if they can’t have passion and youth they must at least have luxury. Penthouse suites and expensive restaurants become the order of the day, and much of the film’s humour comes from the couple’s inability to actually afford such extravagance.

But while there are plenty of lighter moments, Le Week-End regularly veers down darker lanes – shifts in tone that mirror the uncertainty and doubt of the central characters. This is what makes the jokey comparisons to Before Sunset misleading (The Irish Times described it as a ‘senior version’ of  Richard Linklater’s film). Yes, both focus on couples meandering around Paris, but Le Week-End is a much more brittle and fragmentary work. While Jesse and Celine’s stream of conversation gushes with an urgent need to say everything, Nick and Meg’s interaction is thickened by the fait accompli of familiarity.

Le Week-End also contains much of that quaint British ambivalence towards Gallic passion. As is so often the case Paris is both setting and abstraction: a symbol of intensity, freedom, intellectual stimulation and sensual pleasure. Nick and Meg, with their liberal newspapers and passable French, epitomise the conflicted psyche of educated British baby boomers. While the Joie de vivre and radicalism of Paris is seductive, holding the promise of a fuller, more spontaneous life (especially for Meg, who is openly propositioned by the obligatory amorous Frenchman), the film’s undertow is one of suspicion – the old Anglo-Saxon distrust of emotional excess and unbounded desire.

Linked to this theme is Le Week-End‘s predominant question: when love goes tepid is it better to stick or twist? Fifteen years ago Kureishi’s characters were much more inclined to twist. Here is Jay, the torn narrator of his 1998 novel Intimacy, who eventually decides to leave his wife and start a new life:

“If you never left anything or anyone there would be no room for the new. Naturally, to move on is an infidelity — to others, to the past, to old notions of oneself. Perhaps every day should contain at least one essential infidelity or necessary betrayal. It would be an optimistic, hopeful act, guaranteeing belief in the future — a declaration that things can be not only different but better.”

Fifteen years later both the writer and his characters are further down life’s track, and perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Le Week-End is its apparent loss of faith in Jay’s declaration. The key figure here is Morgan, an old college friend of Nick’s who bursts onto stage midway through the film, broadens its focus, and throws the central couple’s plight into a new perspective. Played by Jeff Goldblum, Morgan is a man who opted for the new, a man who abandoned a wife and child in New York to pursue novelty and freedom in Paris. A good decision on the face of it – he’s now a respected writer with a beautiful young wife and a flock of culturally relevant friends. But while not exactly a villain, the film undeniably portrays Morgan as a fake, a clever yet self-consciously shallow egotist. Morgan may be everything Nick is not, and perhaps everything Meg still wants to be, but as Le Week-End progresses there is little doubt where the audience’s sympathy should lie.

The theatrical centrepiece of Le Week-End – a party in Morgan’s swish Parisian apartment – brings the film’s major tensions to a head. It’s Nick versus Morgan, stick versus twist, intimacy versus passion, failure versus success, British pragmatism versus French idealism. A potentially interesting contest, but one of Le Week-End’s problems is that the game is rigged. Goldblum’s Morgan is a lightly sketched caricature who never stands a chance against the fully-fleshed Nick and Meg, and the inevitable result leaves an aftertaste of hopelessness. At one point Nick describes growing old as being like a drowning man clinging to a sheet of melting ice – the film’s rather bleak message seems to be that we should learn to love the ice.

Gareth Thornton

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