Ah, Paris: the ultimate destination for a restorative second honeymoon or a charming romantic comedy. Le Week-End, the latest collaboration by director Roger Michell and screenwriter Hanif Koureishi – who together gave us Peter O’Toole’s final Oscar-nominated role in Venus (2006) – celebrates the beauty and atmosphere of the City of Light in grand cinematic style, while at the same time smartly sabotaging romance both as a film genre and a marital expectation. It’s very funny, but in a prickly, unsettling sort of way that will make you squirm in your seat and warm the cockles of your heart by very quick turns.
After 30 years together, such is the marriage of British academics Meg (Lindsay Duncan) and Nick Burrows (Jim Broadbent), Paris-bound for a refresher after kicking their grown loser son out of the house. But their paths in life seem more likely to diverge than reharmonize at this point, as the personality differences that they once found mutually intriguing and challenging are now making both wonder whether they’ve settled for too little for too long.
Steady, devoted Nick, who hasn’t yet confided in his wife that his contract as a professor of Philosophy at a gritty urban university is not going to be renewed, frets about the expense of the trip but has high hopes that it might put Meg in the mood for sex for the first time in years. The volatile, hard-to-please Meg, meanwhile, feels stifled by Nick’s clinginess and is fantasizing about leaving both him and her teaching job; she’s hoping that Paris will give her some opportunities to cut loose, expenses be damned.
Part of what makes Meg so endlessly fascinating to her husband, even when she verbally abuses him, is her mercurial temperament. She’s a creature of extremes, blowing hot and cold, prone to talking in superlatives both positive and negative. A sip of wine is the best thing she ever put in her mouth and her husband is an absolute idiot – often a minute or two apart. “Have you ever thought that you might be bipolar?” he asks her at one point, as she’s trying to decide on a restaurant for lunch and turning down one after another because it’s too this or too that. “Tripolar, I think,” is her reply, and we believe her.
Nick, for his part, is such a faithful, easygoing, low-maintenance mate – still incredulous after three decades that such an attractive, classy woman would have gone for a homely schlub like himself – that Meg now finds him boring. At moments she deeply appreciates his spontaneous gestures of affection; at others, she compares his reaching out to touch her to “getting arrested.”
Personalitywise, these two don’t seem to have much in common – though both share a deep commitment to honesty, both intellectual and emotional. It’s from this willingness to keep confronting one another, moment to moment, and to make room to hear each other out even when they’re driving one another nuts that we get the makings of a wonderful story that pulls the rug out from under what we expect from a romantic comedy. Their on-again, off-again engagement seems utterly hopeless one minute, then strikes sparks the next – especially when they become co-conspirators in dodging restaurant checks and hotel bills once they’ve exceeded their credit card limit. Risky behavior seems to take them back to their knockabout youth as hippie intellectuals and remind them what exactly they once saw in each other.
Another tonic reminder erupts from a chance encounter on a Paris street, where they’re spotted kissing by Morgan (Jeff Goldblum), a former Cambridge classmate of Nick’s who has recently embarked on a second marriage. Morgan is a social boor and an intellectual sellout who makes way more money than Nick ever did by writing best-sellers, but he still idolizes his old school chum as the real deal. An invitation to a dinner party at Morgan’s posh apartment gives Meg a chance to flirt with a stranger and Nick an excuse to get high and commiserate with his friend’s alienated teenage son from his first marriage (Olly Alexander). The gathering forces both sides of the sparring couple to see one another through the eyes of other people and engage in a bit of very public truth-telling.
And that’s about it: no car chases, no explosions, no gun battles, no spies or superheroes – just an unflinching look at the pros and cons of being long-married. Even in Paris, it ain’t a walk in the park. But two really splendid British actors, and a director and screenwriter sharp enough to give them meaty material with which to work, make Le Week-End a bracingly unsentimental, sneakily charming cinematic experience. It’s a great date movie – if your date is someone you’ve been with forever, or are planning to be with forever. Just leave enough time for a good long heart-to-heart talk after the show.