Love and marriage endure the fading of the Parisian light in Hanif Kureishi's latest silver screen collaboration
Paris is a place synonymous with love and desire. It’s a city of romance, revolution, youthful dreams and the possibilities inherent in life.
In cinema, Paris is a city where love is found and lost. From the wartime idyll of Rick and Ilsa in Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca to the pulp rebellion of Michel and Patricia in Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle, Paris is the setting for some of the most memorable on-screen couplings.
In Roger Michell’s new film Le Week-end we are introduced to Meg (Lindsay Duncan) and Nick Burrows (Jim Broadbent), a married couple on their way to Paris aboard the Eurostar for a 30th wedding anniversary weekend.
Whilst around them in the carriage young couples embrace or hold hands, Nick double checks that he brought his euros as Meg grows increasingly exasperated with him. Nick is a philosophy lecturer in a ‘minor’ northern university and Meg a biology teacher in a secondary school. That they yearn for more from their lives is painfully apparent from the off.
Nick has booked them into the same hotel in Montmartre that they shared on their honeymoon, though Meg doesn’t think it is – the steep staircase makes them wheeze and the room, with its tiny balcony, is bland, beige and shabby.
Taking matters into her own hands, Meg books them into an expensive hotel suite with an expansive balcony offering a spectacular view of the Eiffel Tower using a credit card she knows won’t cover the bill, and chugs champagne from the minibar whilst Nick frets.
So begins their weekend, and it soon becomes clear that Nick and Meg’s marriage is in serious trouble. Meg is impulsive, free-spirited and determined to make the most of the weekend. Nick, meanwhile, is borderline OCD and carries the sadness of the ages in his eyes, constantly trying to please his wife but unable to stop himself from annoying her with his frugality and negativity.
Intermittently, the embers of their love flicker into life: they laugh with easy familiarity at each others’ jokes and share tender glances, but the overriding sense of a relationship that has run its course – or at the very least been bent out of shape by life’s disappointments – is too obvious for either of them to ignore.
Their relationship has become less a partnership and more of a power struggle, one which Nick is close to losing. He has the hangdog look of a bloodhound, and bristles with resentment at the admiring glances his still attractive wife receives. Meg treats his desire with careful cruelty. On their first evening in the suite, for example, he asks to make love to her. 'I’ll do it for you later, if you’re still awake,' she replies.
The wonderfully acerbic script, by novelist Hanif Kureishi, is filled with such verbal barbs. Like the toxic middle-aged couple in James Agee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Nick and Meg know how to wield words as a weapon.
This is Kureishi and director Michell’s third film collaboration, following on from their work together on the 1993 television series The Buddha of Suburbia. Their previous two silver screen outings, The Mother starring Daniel Craig and Venus starring Peter O’Toole, both dealt with love across the generations. Here, it is youth itself that is yearned after.
Broadbent and Duncan are marvelous as the Burrows. It’s a testament to how well they inhabit the roles that we care so much about them, and hope (almost against hope) that they can salvage their relationship within the running time of the movie. BAFTA nominations no doubt will follow.
As the weekend continues, Nick and Meg take in Montparnasse Cemetery and visit the grave of Samuel Beckett. They dine at an expensive restaurant then, at Meg’s insistence, sneak off without paying. There are moments of humour: they still make each other laugh and there is intermittent tenderness between them. They relive memories of their radical youth and revisit places that hold fond memories. They even kiss in the street.
It is during this kiss that they are interrupted by Morgan, played by Jeff Goldblum. An old university pal of Nick’s, Morgan is riding a wave of success following the publication of his latest book, a New York Times bestseller. He invites the couple to a party, or ‘soirée’ as he calls it, in his swanky apartment.
At the party, the Burrows are surrounded by the trappings of Morgan’s success. The apartment is filled with intellectuals and writers. They are introduced to Morgan’s second wife. She is young, pretty, French and pregnant.
During dinner, Morgan praises Nick and reveals how he worshipped him when they were at university together and aspired to be just like him. Nick rises to give his own speech and his true feelings about himself and the life he has ended up living are revealed in a brilliantly written and perfectly pitched confessional.
This paves the way towards a brilliantly satisfying and delightful cinematic nod to the past, which places Le Week-end alongside the great films set in the city of light.
Le Week-end runs in Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast until October 24.