Roger Michell’s Homage to Godard Leaves Its Characters Literally Breathless

Roger Michell and Hanif Kureishi reunite in Le Week-End, a surprisingly uncompromising portrait of a long, restless marriage.

“You always did edit out the arguments and the misery,” Meg (Lindsay Duncan) says accusatorily to her husband Nick (Jim Broadbent), though at the more jovial end of her oscillating mood. Nick, you sense, would be squirming uncomfortably in his seat at a screening of Le Week-End, for it purposefully edits out very little from this glimpse of a festering marriage, whether misery or happiness.

Roger Michell’s latest collaboration with writer Hanif Kureishi feels their age, not just in the age of the protagonists on-screen (Broadbent 64, Duncan 63), but in the spacious pacing of Michell’s (57) filmmaking and the grouchy concerns of Kureishi’s (59) script. This is a refined, silky film that rarely gets conceived, let alone made, and the increasingly heavy feeling of the central relationship comes with a gravitas that only the foundations of time and experience can compel.

To celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary, Nick and Meg decide to return to their honeymoon locale: Paris. The camera shudders as the Eurostar train rattles through the countryside, tracking backwards to find the pair seated quietly, comfortable in the cosy indifference of their coupling. Unseen, at home, a layabout adult son divides them in concept more than in practice; what separates them on French ground is their personalities, which seem to have lost their synchronicity and put them repeatedly at odds. Like the same year’s Before Midnight, it’s a rare glimpse of what comes after the happy ending, and how romance isn’t sustainable on the idealised high with which cinema so insistently captures it.

All this isn’t to say that Le week-end is without its humour and pleasures. Broadbent, a familiarly genial, ruffled middle-class figure, is on fine form, and his chemistry with Duncan – a less prolific performer, but no less seasoned into an earthy familiarity – makes the more incidental scenes of their intimate interplay sing with realism. Michell captures this with a light, alert shooting style, consciously aping Godard with a loose jazz score and fluid depiction of the city’s movement.

Broadbent and Duncan have mapped out the grooves of the characters by feel rather than by thought, making their rapport instantly recognisable as they struggle across Paris with their baggage. When they reach their hotel – a dirty, pokey, “beige” little place Nick remembers fondly – the power dynamic is set alight. Meg isn’t having any of this cheap, run down nonsense, turning prickly to both husband and manager as she walks out the door. Nick, helpless, can only join her, and soon they’re shelling out for the penthouse suite of an expensive hotel in close proximity to the Eiffel Tower. “Whatever it costs is fine,” insists Meg, her voice barbed with a challenge to her cowed husband.

If Kureishi’s work, as he suggested recently in a television interview with Alan Yentob, is often a struggle between a restless character and a more settled, traditional soul, Le week-end somewhat unusually casts the female in the more active position, as Meg pushes and pulls against a marriage she sees as rather staid.

She proves unpredictable as the pair do things as ordinary as walking down the cobbled streets; she commands Nick to wait outside the restaurant and then makes her escape through a side exit to avoid paying the bill. She repeatedly tries to provoke something unexpected in the “pathetically dependent” Nick – and it would perhaps not be cinema if this weren’t the first time in years, you imagine, when he decides to fight back. When he commands Meg to show him her breasts, Duncan’s pause makes it clear that the unknown has reared its head in their relationship.

As the film progresses, the intrinsic difference between the couple becomes the source of great conflict, with the diversion of other characters provoking transgressive and volatile behaviour in both Nick and Meg. They quite suddenly bump into Nick’s college roommate, Morgan (Jeff Goldblum), who interrupts their typically passionate (it’s one extreme or the other) embrace on a Parisian street and invites them to his dinner party. While Morgan’s appearance stirs memories in Nick, it’s the man’s family members who, in an extended and somewhat contrived act of the film, unintentionally needle the couple.

The solace the pair finds in Morgan’s wife and son is momentary and illusory, and its brevity makes apparent that it’s merely the difference of a new perspective that alters things for the couple, rather than anything specific in dialogue or action. While the following dinner table scene rings false, Kureishi is perceptive in idea: these shifts, more than anything, underline the danger and instability of marriage and tying yourself to a single person. This may have been arbitrarily condensed into a brief time period, but the acting often brings an affecting dynamism to an unflattering reality, making Le week-end a surprisingly uncompromising experience.

The release comes with a feature commentary by Roger Michell and producer Kevin Loader; their deep, masculine voices move between erudite and dull, echoing Morgan more than the main characters in their dry, factual but smart discussion. Piecemeal press interviews – one Broadbent and Duncan, effusive about the script; the other Kureishi and Michell – a seven minute observational, unnarrated look behind the scenes, and a short compilation of sketchbook imagery are the remainder of the rather unilluminating extras.

RATING 6 / 10