Imagine picking up with Jesse and Celine of Before Midnight in their sixties, and you’ll get an idea of what’s in store in Le Week-End, Roger Michell’s intelligent new film about a middle-aged British couple spending a weekend in Paris. They are Meg (Lindsay Duncan), a teacher who is still gorgeous and vivacious at sixty-three, and Nick Burrows (Jim Broadbent), a professor soon-to-be forced into retirement having never achieved the greatness to which he once aspired. The performances by these two veteran actors are tours de force: we see the years of built-up hurt and resentment that comes with deep intimacy and love. As Nick says, “you can’t not love and hate the same person, usually in the space of about five minutes.”
The occasion for the trip is their thirtieth wedding anniversary, but whether it will reinvigorate or end their marriage is not immediately clear, especially given the rough start to their journey. Returning to the hotel where they honeymooned, it’s not the charming place they remember, but the sort of claustrophobic quarters that young travelers don’t mind because they can’t afford more. Nick, who is perpetually worried about money, having spent their savings taking care of their parasitic son, tries to persuade Meg to stay, but she’s dissatisfied, as much, it seems, with the accommodations as with the company she keeps. She checks them into a fancy hotel they can’t afford, but this extravagance may prove to be just what they needed.
Their first day in Paris is fraught with tension: they both have secrets to reveal and they’re hardly kind to one another. Meg worries that with the departure of their children, there will be nothing left to hold their marriage together, while Nick copes with being forced into early retirement. At first, it’s hard not to lean your sympathies toward the mild-mannered and well-intentioned Nick, who seems under constant, and often cruel, attack from his wife. But her accusations and zingers aren’t in a vacuum: they’re ultimately a valid response.
Despite the surface tension, these are clearly people who are in love and who share the contradictions of long-term intimacy. When Meg rebukes one of Nick’s half-hearted advances by pushing him away hard – he falls on his knee onto the pavement, moaning in pain – it takes only seconds for Meg to start to worry about her husband and dote. There’s also an ease to their nastiness, and their shared dry wit is clearly something they’ve developed over years in each other’s company.
Part of their struggle is that they are rubbing up against their ideas about love and romance but faced with their own problems: they’re in the romantic city of Paris, where the films of their youth, like Bande à Part, took place. They feel like they have something to prove – that the spark can be rekindled – and lose sight of the bigger picture, the strength of their bond. Meg seems to be daring Nick to leave her, yet neither can imagine a life apart.
Just as the couple’s troubles begin to seem insurmountable, they run into Nick’s college friend, Morgan (Jeff Goldblum), a successful American author who seems to have figured life out. He invites them over to his place for a party the following night. Nick is surprised to discover how important he has been to Morgan’s life, and gets a reminder of his younger self through Morgan’s recounting of his memories of their youth. We also get to see the backstage damage that Morgan caused when he left his first wife and son, to start all over again: he shacked up with the beautiful young French woman who can’t see through him yet.
It’s interacting with Morgan, and seeing past his façade that allows Meg and Nick to finally get some perspective on their own lives and relationship. Although this requires public outbursts from each of them that strain believability, at a party that is already an obvious plot device, it’s forgivable. The characters, if not the situations, are entirely realistic.
It’s rare to see a film about late middle-age, which is neither pure escapism (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) nor about people at the end of their rope (Unfinished Song). In many ways, Nick and Meg are embarking on a new beginning, and it takes this weekend in Paris to figure out just where they might want to go and with whom. The dialogue is not as startlingly realistic as that in Before Midnight, but the layers of the relationship and the strength of the performances are just as strong. Like their characters, Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan have a whole lot left to offer the world, and I hope they get another vehicle as worthy of their talents.
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