Le Weekend is a mess. A majority of reviews describe it as a romantic comedy, albeit some qualify this by saying it is a bitter-sweet account of a 30 years old marital relationship. American, British and French critics on the whole liked the film for different reasons. A minority called it sour, misanthropic or misogynist.
On a first viewing I found it unfunny and unpleasant. After a close analysis I discovered that not only do the script (Kureishi) and mise-en-scene (Michell) not merge but they form a fragmented whole. Also the two ageing male characters, Nick and Morgan contrast with the superficial, even misogynist portrayal of Meg.
Michell presents us with a view of Paris which includes various aspects of the Eiffel Tower, but does not appear touristy. It is what I would call a five stars Paris. It is Meg who leads us there. Why does she vehemently reject the small hotel room of her honeymoon? I will come to this later. In a frantic taxi drive through Paris, Meg and Nick finish at the glamorous, sophisticated Plaza Athénée Hotel famous for its façade adorned with geraniums at every window. The restaurant Chez Dumonet where Meg and Nick have their first meal is no less expensive. And the bill they did not pay at the fish restaurant the next day seemed to be quite hefty. Morgan’s huge period apartment is luxurious. There are also other more cultured sites like the Montparnasse cemetery where Baudelaire, Soutine, Becket, Sartre, are buried and the Taschen Art and Photography bookstore in the Latin Quarter. These sights are filmed to show sophistication in life style, environment, food and intellect. Other shots of Paris, some aerial, do give a more general impression of the city. A busy square when they first arrive and ask their way, a street with cars parked bumper to bumper (reference to Godard’s Weekend?), the aerial metro, the interiors of restaurants and cafés, the panoramic view from the Sacré Coeur. The motif of stairs is insistent: there are the ones leading to their first hotel, the exhausting ones leading to the Sacré Coeur, the burnished wood stairwell of the Plaza and the intricate metal incorporating a lift of Morgan’s building in the rue de Rivoli. In a typical Michell’s style people are often filmed against or through slightly open doors, next to columns and walls or other indistinct verticals, rarely in the middle of the shot. Wordy scenes with hotel staff, waiters and porter seem completely redundant.
Yes these takes do differ from the usual postcard Paris but to what purpose? The only relevant mise-en-scene elements that serves the script are the night scenes or sequences. The ones in the expertly lit, now messy bedroom help express the distance between the two main protagonists. It is there that Nick leaves the marital bed after his sexual advances are rebuffed. It is here that he goes back to his youth listening to Bob Dylan or making a collage on the wall. Morgan’s sophisticated interior gives us a dinner table shot like a Last Supper with Nick in the middle. Maybe a far-fetched connection but Morgan’s mention that he was a disciple of Nick reinforces this impression. It is round this table that we are given a detailed account of both Nick’s and Morgan’s youth in Cambridge and that we hear a loving appraisal of Morgan by his young pregnant wife; and where Morgan demonstrates remarkable self-knowledge while Nick delivers an abject self-pitying account of his inner feelings of failure, of fear of ageing, of rejection. The dialogue on the balcony between Meg and her admirer pays more attention to the famous buildings of Paris than to Meg’s unhappy feelings about her life.
The favourable reviews lead us to believe that Le Week-End is a romantic comedy showing a couple’s complex relationship after 30 years of marriage. There were few laughs in the cinema I attended during the capers of Meg running through the hotel, doing an eat and run scam, followed by a whining Nick. I would argue that the film’s treatment of this relationship is superficial and formulaic while the lives of the two friends Nick and Morgan are better explored.
As a romantic comedy couple, there is no psychological or sexual tension in the relationship, no underlying attraction, no progress from indifference to love. There is only contempt and passive self-pity. Kureishi’s more sour-bitter than bitter-sweet script gives us a static state for the first two-thirds of the film. And resolution occurs in the last third thanks to the intervention of Morgan and some alcohol and weed that permit Nick to express himself openly.
Meg is beautiful and her face only shows laughter lines around the eyes and the mouth. She is well described by Nick as ‘hot but cold’. She initiates all actions and is followed by a submissive but admiring Nick. She behaves in, what we are supposed to consider, an irresponsible teen-age fashion and initiates the story by spurning the ‘beige’ honeymoon hotel room in favour of the luxe of high-class Paris. She addresses Nick in these terms: “you dirty dog”. “fucking idiot” , “pathetically dependent”, “I am not sure you have any balls”, “behave like a man for once”. On the other hand Broadbent’s Nick is made to look old. A close-ups of his hands around a coffee cup in the deserted bar of the Eurostar signify ageing. His face is unshaven, his eyes sad. He is also aggressive with Meg but in a more ironical quiet way. He proffers platitudes about love and sex. “There is more to love than loving or being loved”, “Love is the only interesting thing, it is far, far more difficult to do than sex.” Time and again Nick’s desperate attempts at having sex are rebuffed by Meg’s coarse insults and teasing abuse.
There are only two genuine visual moments that suggest the warmth between the protagonists. They are descending a steep street behind a grey haired couple who both carry full shopping bags. Nick says: “This is us in ten years”. This is followed by a tussle between them that finish on a sour note. The other moment occurs over a meal where Meg makes Nick taste her delicious food. Occasionally Meg acknowledges Nick to thank him but at no time are we given any inkling of a shared past.
This is not so when Morgan appears in the last third of the film. The quick repartees, the fast editing make way for long takes, long speeches. The past is obviously contrasted with the present. We get to know the close bond between the two men, the trajectories of their lives and their relationships, the respect that Morgan has for Nick. Nick is dependent, frustrated, passive and depressed at being a failure. Morgan enjoys with gusto and some insight, his financial success and the adoration of his new much younger wife. Morgan’s teen-age son provides the intergenerational admiration as well as weed.
I imagine that there is enough truth in some of the script for the aged male viewers to identify with. But the cold and cruel Meg is just as in The Mother an ageing selfish woman. She is ‘still doing it’- not sex this time. She has lost all interest in the matter. She is still capable of behaving irresponsibly and taking risks. We are supposed to think that she is behaving in a ‘young’ way. Her character lacks consistency and sentences about ’empty nest’, dissatisfaction with her job, regrets at wasting opportunities in order to remain faithful, do not ring true. It is difficult to accept that such a strong-willed woman who treats her husband the way she does, makes do with dissatisfaction. And if she does? why does she? It is difficult to accept that a selfish cold woman who tells a younger woman in love with her husband that he will soon be bored with her, is so tame that all she can aspire to in a changed life is to “learn Italian, play the piano, dance the tango”. Again there is some truth in the fact women do have constraints in their lives, that retired people take up new interests and this may be the recognition effect added to Duncan’s acting talents that makes her plausible to some viewers.
I will finish by quoting in support of my argument the opening and closing sequences. On the Eurostar Nick and Meg are sitting next to each other facing the camera. He fumbles in his pockets, she looks irritated and absorbed reading a book. The last sequence is of Meg between Nick and Morgan dancing the famous dance of Godard’s Bande A Part. (1964)
There are many nostalgic references in this film. The title for a start recalls Godard’s film Weekend (1967). Other references: the dance in Bande A Part (1964) first seen on the TV screen and then copied as the last sequence. Another more subtle reference is to Le Chat (1971) a much better film about an ageing couple and their complex relationship played by Simone Signoret and Jean Gabin. In this very brief scene Gabin looks at a young couple and a motorcycle. This image of longing for youth is taken up by Michell when Nick is at a cash-point.
Kureishi was 59 and Michell 57 when they made the film and it may well say more about them than about an ageing couple. I have stressed the qualities of Michell direction and cinematography. But it would be a shame to use this film as an example of a significant portrayal of an ageing couple when many better films deal with different aspects of the subject. I will name a few omitting the romcoms : Tokyo Story, Make Way for Tomorrow, Innocence, Away from her, Le Chat, Les Temps Qui Changent.