Tuesday, March 18, 2014
Le Week-End (***)
Directed by Roger Michell
The list is endless with film titles detailing the taxing burden of marriage, the soul-sucking slog that follows the 'Happily Ever After' so many other stories like to finish on. Two for the Road and Blue Valentine, two very different films from very different eras and starring two very different couplets of movie stars, contrasted the good times of the past and the bad times of the present, a particularly heartbreaking storytelling device and a pessimistic one at that. But both of those films are brilliant and enlightening in a way that a film like Le Week-End is not. Le Week-End is made by Roger Michell, who also made 2006's Venus which gave us Peter O'Toole's his last great performance and spoke about the daunting arrival of mortality in a way that was sweetly perverted by old man horniness - it was an acting piece, and it knew it. Michell's latest film is just as cynical about growing older, but Le Week-End is not wrapped in the sort of "Final Chance" fantasy that Venus builds its plot around. If anything, it's the exact opposite, as the starring man and wife fail miserably at nearly every effort to manufacture that always mentioned spark to their suffocating relationship.
Nick (Jim Broadbent) and Meg (Lindsay Duncan) have been married for thirty years, and to celebrate the occasion they've decided to spend the weekend in Paris where they once spent a passionate moment long before their lives became stale. The hiccups begin rather soon, when they go to the hotel that is supposedly the same one that they stayed at in that much happier moment. The rooms have changed and stink of modernization ("It's beige!" Meg exclaims, staring at the walls). They get in a cab and drive until Meg sees a swanky, palace-like hotel that fulfills her lofty ambitions for the trip. Nick follows her helplessly, bags in his hand, as they end up booked in a souped-up suite which the maitre'd describes with enthusiasm ("Tony Blair once stayed there!"). The room is expansive with high ceilings, large rooms and a mini bar which gets ravaged almost immediately upon arrival. Meg feels free to take full advantage of the pricey options in front of her, but Nick is a bit more hesitant. He reveals why at lunch: he's being forced out of his job as a professor after making a remark to a black female student that is insensitive at best, racist at worst. Meg is not sympathetic.
As the film progresses, we learn that Nick and Meg are a notoriously salty couple prone to angry arguments that don't necessarily need to be instigated but are more than ready to blow if the ignition is ready. They have one son who comes equipped with a wife and baby daughter, who's dependence on his parents borders on the pathetic. The son's home has rats so they are constantly camping out in the home of Nick and Meg. Meg blames their son's over-reliance on Nick's enabling, and Nick scolds Meg for having such a cold heart toward their own child. Watching them fight feels like a more sober version of Virginia Woolf's George and Martha (not that Nick and Meg are the driest couple in movie history), their sore comments often meant to be more than mere teasing, but bone-cutting, soul-crushing put downs. Even in the happier moments, it feels like their positioning themselves for the next battle in the life-long war of their marriage. After all this time, they feel like they can no longer surprise each other, their love still rich on a deep, philosophical level, but their overall attraction feeling like a distant figure, floating further away with each day.
There is one surprise for them in Paris, though, and it's the appearance of Nick's college friend and protege, Morgan (Jeff Goldblum), who himself has recently rid his life of his troublesome wife and has moved to the famously exotic French city only to find a new, much younger wife who is now pregnant. Morgan idolized Nick when they were both at school, but Morgan is now a much celebrated and highly successful philosophical author, while Nick is a jobless professor. Nick and Meg decide to spend dinner in Morgan's robust Paris apartment where they are met with a small collection of the intelligentsia that Morgan likes to surround himself with. While Morgan goes toward nearly embarrassing lengths to heap praise upon his old friend in front of his new ones, one of the patroning intellectuals decides to come on to Meg in a very forward way. The night leads to an emotionally thrilling climax as Nick and Meg meet what is undoubtedly another crossroads, one that they've faced before, and must make the decision about whether their love is worth loving for.
Le Week-End does have moments where it can't find it's footing. The comparison to Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is valid because the insults are just as cold and calculating, if not as torrid. But it never quite goes as far as Virginia Woolf does toward showcasing a marriage that is equipped with poison. Michell obviously has more affections for his characters' relationship than Albee did for his - the temptation to say 'Well, in the end, Love is All We Need' is a bit to strong for this film to resist. But it does not stop Duncan and Broadbent from truly finding the real bite behind these characters. They play Nick and Meg as two people who are facing a droll reality: the advances of medical science have put a real strain on the tradition of marriage - a tradition that made a lot more sense when humans were dying quickly after the age of fifty. Le Week-End doesn't want to fool anybody into thinking that reconciliation is final; it's just a momentary pause until the next upsetting occurrence. And yet, Michell seems to seek a real romance behind that idea; that the price of commitment is littered with unhappiness, but that it pays off in companionship that can have its own, rich contributions. I'm not sure Nick and Meg would buy that.
Broadbent and Duncan do their best to find that happy medium that Michell is seeking, and truth be told, the two actors find a sort of brutal realness to the marriage that both signifies their perpetual perturbed-ness toward each other while also conveying the more existential connection that still lays dormant beneath their venomous words. Broadbent isn't exactly an enigmatic performer or a shapeshifting actor, but it always seems like he can play anything because it's always so nice to see him try anything. That being said, I prefer Broadbent in this form: fragile, near broken. The great Mike Leigh got that out of him twice indifferent ways: first in Topsy-Turvy and then more recently in Another Year. It's an area where he excels because he can be pathetic without feeling like a chore on the screen. At age 63, Lindsay Duncan is still a very beautiful woman even if she does very much look her age. Le Week-End plays with that; the sexual power of the female species even when it's well out of its prime. Meg is a much more brutal sparrer than Nick, and she carries herself with a self-confident air that shows that after decades of putting up with him, she doesn't mind that she's throwing punches that Nick is not prepared to return.
The tone to Le Week-End always felt odd to me. Part of that blame goes to the director and no small part goes to Jeff Goldblum, who plays his part as if he's doing the world's worst Jeff Goldblum impression. None of it should go on Broadbent and Duncan, who prove that you don't need to be under fifty to showcase a realistic romance in a movie. You only need to look toward last year to see another film which covered the same topic: Richard Linklater's Before Midnight. That film had the baggage of two previous films that helped create the formation of a much unexpected trilogy of romance and love. Le Week-End is starting from scratch, so perhaps it's not fair to compare, but both understand the fatal secret of any long-form relationships and monogamy - the pure impossibility of enjoying any one person's company for such a stretched-out period of time. Le Week-End wraps itself up a little more tidily than I would have liked, ending with as mush whimsy as the French New Wave films that it's influenced by. All that said, I'm not sure how much I would have enjoyed the more droll, tragic version of this film. At least it gives you one small thing to look forward to.