Thursday, February 20, 2014

Review: Le Weekend

Rates:  *  *  *  1/2

I was in Europe last year when Le Weekend  was about to hit cinemas. The above poster was on countless Tube stations.

And, on first glance, this seems like the most straightforward of prospects; sun dappled Paris, an aging couple, a zany friend. You don't really need to see the film to know how it plays out. The aging couple have drifted apart, they decide on a final fling, they hate it, they love it, Goldblum provides the comic relief, everyone learns something, you leave the cinema and wonder what on earth made you go in there in the first place.

Well, at least I knew the answer to this one. My partner got me a free ticket.

And, sure enough, the set up was much as expected, Nick (Jim Broadbent) and Meg (Lindsay Duncan) are an aging couple who have drifted apart. Two early points to me and I was feeling very smug at this point as I munched on a gourmet Connoisseur icecream (girl at the candy bar: 'Oh! I looove those.') The opening of the film finds them on a train, headed for the dreaded final fling in sun dappled Paris.

And, more surely enough, things don't go as planned at first. Nick has booked them into a hotel they spent a fondly remembered weekend at in their youth, and is dismayed to find said hotel now a mouldering dump. Meg takes one look at their cramped, poky room and marches out to hail a cab, seemingly unconcerned as to whether her husband follows her. She leads them on to a ritzy five star place, and a credit card buckling suite.

Again, much as expected. The characters seem standard movie cut outs - boring, conservative husband, free spirited, independent wife - and the scenario is one that has been played out many times throughout the history of cinema...

... only, it doesn't take long for the film to start to subvert these precepts.

The banter between the couple is considerably more pointed than you might expect. They don't so much nag and tease each other, as you expect elderly movie couples to do, as take to each other with truncheons. The casual viciousness with which they verbally thump one another is positively cold blooded.

And their mild weekend getaway is quickly derailed as well. It turns out that Meg is not only bored and frustrated with her husband, but seems to loathe the sight of him, and calmly tells him over their first night's dinner that she wants out of their relationship.

'I want... a new start,' she says firmly, putting a spoonful of something rich in her mouth.

And you can see why.

Nick and Meg seem to have nothing whatever in common. One is bold and gregarious, the other stodgy and introverted. One likes to think of the future, the other the past. One thinks that great days still lie ahead, the other seems to have dismissed this notion and, with it, given up all hope.
Nick then tells Meg that he has lost his teaching job - fired for smart mouthing a student - which further seems to underline his diminishing stature. Meg seems to be walking away from a train wreck.

But the movie turns again at this point, triggered by a small act of rebellion when Meg cajoles Nick into sneaking out of the restaurant without paying their hefty bill. With their future together seemingly gone, it's as if a weight has been lifted. They relax, they laugh, they drink and listen to music. They walk the ever luminous Paris streets. They talk, openly and directly about their feelings, their resentments, their regrets.

These moments seem truly intimate and have the ring of truth. There is little recrimination, just melancholia, over time and opportunities lost. It's the sort of conversation you can only have at certain key moments in your life, when dramatic circumstances force a stark re-evaluation.

Things come to a head at a party given by Morgan (Jeff Goldblum), an old university chum who Nick bumps into on the street. And where Nick is struggling in almost every facet of his life, Morgan is thriving; sporting an attractive trophy wife, a handsomely swish apartment and a book of collected works that has become a phenomenal best seller.

Mentally freed, or just flattered, Meg arranges to meet an attractive party goer at a nearby bar for a drink. While Nick gets stoned with Morgan's unhappy teenage son and makes an impromptu speech to the assembled throng, confessing all his recent reversals. Meg then, almost reluctantly, counters by saying that she still loves her husband after all, and they leave together.

But lest the movie veer back towards safe, wrinkly rom-com territory, it has one more final swerve up its sleeve. The couple decide not to go back to England, and end dancing in a cafe in the famous manner of the misfit trio in Jean Luc Godard's Bande a Parte (with Goldblum making up the numbers). Their future is suddenly wide open and whether they stay in Paris and stay together, or do neither of these things, for the first time in the entire film, they appear properly happy.

I mistook this earnest, thoughtful drama for a bit of fluff before I knew it was penned by Hanif Kureishi, the British author who has made his career out of documenting lower and upper middle class misery. And, by his recent standards, this almost is a bit of a romp.

Kureishi has a keen eye and a sharp ear for dialogue, which illuminates his characters and makes their troubles surprisingly affecting. He also shows skill in allowing the characters to slowly reveal themselves to us; the thumbnail stereotypes they first present as are expanded, and then destroyed, by film's end. Nick seems less a stodge then a rather patient man deeply in love with a difficult woman, and Meg shows that her bravado can both be easily punctured by the world and restored by her more down to earth partner.

These are rich characters, all the more remarkable when you consider their undoubted ordinariness, and they are well served by two veteran actors in peak form. As is Jeff Goldblum, who has found his best part in years as a vain, cerebral motor mouth.

Le Weekend is an unusual film, staking out complex turf between comedy, drama and romance. All of these elements are present, but not in their conventional form, which gives the piece a tone that is hard to categorise. Similarly, the overall message remains somewhat obscure. Are Nick and Meg breaking free? Showing that life goes on, even after retirement age? Or are they just running away, hiding from their problems, much as Morgan and Nick's deadbeat son have done?

No easy answers are provided, and the movie suggests that there are none to be found, anywhere. As you age, life doesn't get any easier, or clearer, but remains a constant problem to be grappled with. An idea that is both refreshing and depressing, all at once.

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