As light entertainment for grown-ups, Le Week-End has a fair amount going for it: fine lead performances from Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan, pleasant touristic views of Paris, and plenty of epigrammatic wit in the Noel Coward tradition. But fans of British screenwriter Hanif Kureishi will be seriously disappointed; this once-significant dramatist (My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) seems to have run out of meaningful things to say. The central characters—two married sixtysomething professors trying to reignite their romance on a weekend trip to Paris—voice familiar baby boomer gripes about post-60s disillusionment and even more familiar gripes about aging. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, except that Kureishi raises these stock concerns only to retreat into sentimentality and self-congratulation.
To be fair, Kureishi has reason to congratulate himself. My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987) were two of the most influential movies to come out of Thatcher-era England. Not only did Kureishi, son of a white mother and an Indian father, cast a sympathetic light on groups marginalized under Thatcher—Asian immigrants and their children, bisexuals, the far left—his screenplays were invigorating in their cheerful defiance of social taboos. Writing in the Reader, Dave Kehr observed that My Beautiful Laundrette “doesn’t treat the gay relationship [between a former skinhead and a Pakistani] as anything remarkable—which makes the film itself remarkable—but simply as a surge of encouraging human feeling against a background of economic devastation and racial divisiveness.” Along with Kureishi’s 1990 autobiographical novel The Buddha of Suburbia, these two features were casually authoritative in their view of multicultural London, a view that still feels fresh today.
The secret of Kureishi’s popular success might lie in his ability to fuse radical subject matter with traditional storytelling. The Buddha of Suburbia, rousing as it may be, is thick with nostalgia and coming-of-age cliches; his screenplays employ the standard three-act structure so rigidly that you can practically set your watch by the dramatic complications. And in all his work, Kureishi’s wit can have a smug quality, his fine-tuned prose sometimes overshadowing his blunt ideas. These shortcomings have grown more apparent since Kureishi abandoned the topics of race and bisexuality. His previous film, Venus (2006), is a well-observed if fairly routine drama about an octogenarian actor (Peter O’Toole) struggling to grow old gracefully. Its sexual candor recalls Kureishi’s best work, yet it doesn’t add much to the character study, which often gets mired in male self-pity.
So it goes in Le Week-End, in which the emasculated Nick (Broadbent) begs his brittle wife, Meg (Duncan), for sexual favors. These moments are certainly realistic in their unsparing account of male vulnerability, but dramatically they only reiterate what we already know about the spouses’ power dynamic and mutual dissatisfaction. “Over the past five to ten years, your vagina has become something of a closed book,” Nick says early on, as he and Meg bicker their way from one hotel to another before finding one they like. That’s not the only moment that suggests Kureishi is turning into a cranky Neil Simon; for the first two thirds, Le Week-End serves primarily as a showcase for the couple’s barbs, with revelations of pent-up bitterness shrewdly wedged between them.
Roger Michell’s unassuming direction gives the veteran actors plenty of room, and they work wonders with the material; their rapport feels authentic, and their delivery and body language convey years of life experience. Well before one learns that Nick has been forced into early retirement, his disappointment is evident in the actor’s sunken expressions, and Duncan’s exasperated line readings hint that Meg has been considering divorce long before she blurts out the news in a moment of anger. But once the characters start explaining the sources of their unhappiness, the drama becomes less compelling, largely because their problems seem far from insurmountable: they’ve been exploited financially by their layabout son, who can’t maintain the home they’ve bought for him; they worry about what they’ll do in retirement; and Nick hates himself for giving up on his youthful political ideals and creative ambitions.
As in Venus, the hero’s self-pity seldom lets up. “I was a star at university; I’m amazed at how mediocre I’ve turned out,” says Nick when he and Meg visit Samuel Beckett’s grave, and the line resounds through the rest of the film. What makes this sentiment so obnoxious is that Kureishi asks us to take Nick’s squandered potential on faith; the character never discusses his old political convictions at length, preferring vague references to his 60s radicalism (reading Antonio Gramsci in college, experimenting with “weird living arrangements,” handing out socialist newspapers in front of factories). By contrast, Kureishi barely touches on Meg’s youth and neglects such crucial information as what she teaches for a living. One gets the uncomfortable impression that Kureishi considers Nick entitled to his self-pity only because he has the proper New Left credentials.
For the first hour of Le Week-End, Nick is so pathetic that one could argue the movie is critiquing his behavior, but the final half hour lays waste to that argument. (Spoilers follow.) In Paris the couple bump into one of Nick’s old friends, Morgan (Jeff Goldblum), who’s become a successful essayist. Morgan looked up to Nick in college, so he invites the couple to a swanky dinner party at his apartment the next night. Deflated by Meg’s threat of divorce and intimidated by Morgan’s successful friends, Nick hides out with Morgan’s disaffected teenage son (Olly Alexander), who offers him a joint. Meg is moved after she eavesdrops on Nick sniveling about how happy he is to be married, and at dinner Nick somehow earns the other guests’ respect when he responds to Morgan’s compliments with a tirade of self-pity, which climaxes with the characteristically eloquent line, “My wife is well aware that I only cling to her like a drowning man to a shelf of melting ice because no one else will touch me.”
“That was awesome!” shouts Morgan’s son. “Genius!” says Morgan in the following scene. Nick can still impress the youth and the literati, and there’s no need to worry about your political failings if you still feel hip. More wish fulfillment follows in the final scenes as Meg proclaims her renewed passion for her husband, Nick tells off his deadbeat son when the latter telephones to ask a favor, and the couple’s money problems are solved when Morgan steps in to offer them unlimited financial support. The movie saves its most embarrassing moment for the very end, when Nick, Meg, and Morgan clumsily re-create the Madison sequence of Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964) in a bistro. That famous scene reflects the radical artistry of Godard’s early period, when the filmmaker created a volatile mix of high and low culture. The allusion reduces the scene to simple boomer nostalgia, encapsulating Kureishi’s creative decline all too well.