Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Sep 18, 2013 3:38 pm 
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An aging English couple's wry anniversary in Paris

Le Week-End is a rather bitter, yet safe, little comedy about sixty-somethings that will please the mature art-house audience. Mitchell, whose Hyde Park on Hudson last year (NYFF 2012), about Roosevelt's meeting with England's king and queen, was on the crude side, delivers something this time with both more tone and more bite thanks to a Paris background, discreet chamber jazz, performances by Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan and Jeff Goldblum, and above all a script by Hanif Kureishi, who has collaborated with Mitchell before (with The Mother and Venus) and likes to blend laughs and home truths. Kuraishi's richest triumph as a screenwriter still remains My Beautiful Laundrette, done with Stephen Frears, one of the best English movies of the Eighties. Kureishi's focus seems to have narrowed and his viewpoint soured since then; a very bitter divorce and midlife crisis or crises of his own are not impossible writing influences.

These actors are so distinguished and reliable, so able at mimicking the familiarity of a long marriage, they might put one to sleep, were it not for all the thorny issues that arise between Meg Burrows (Duncan) and fellow teacher Jack (Broadbent). The theme is late (sixty-something) midlife crisis hitting a seasoned marriage whose anniversary they are celebrating with a weekend in the Ville Lumière, where they spent their honeymoon three decades hence. They seem to delight in overspending, in ways that may strain credibility: to begin with Meg summarily rejects the modest but decent little "beige" hotel they're chosen (their original one?), and ordains a costly tour ride in an open-roofed taxi to compensate and take them to a very expensive hotel where after a wait they're given the one space available, a VIP suite whose balcony overlooks the Eiffel Tower and whose bar is well-stocked with champagne, which they drink. We also see them savor several nice restaurant meals, the second in a place so upscale they are forced to "do a runner" to avoid payment. Something like this happens at the very posh hotel, except that at that point they're really in trouble.

Meanwhile there are the demands and complaints. Jack wants to revive their sex life; Meg says his touch is like being put under arrest. He persists, but she threatens divorce, or at least going off with the first Frenchman she meets at a party given by Morgan (Goldblum), an old and admiring Cambridge classmate of Jack's they run into who's won all the success that has eluded Jack. The climax is the party's dinner celebrating Morgan's new book -- his speech manages to be modest and boastful and all his behavior is a satire on American egocentrism -- where Jack replies to a toast to himself with a speech that becomes an aria of ironic self-pity about how he's in fact been a failure at everything. This includes, as we've already learned, that rude words to a student have led to his being forced into early retirement; a failure of a grown son they're only just gotten rid of who wants to come back with them; and being flat broke (if so, why this trip?). Goldblum has several little arias of his own, delivered with the panache that shows what a terrific stage actor he also is; I still remember his wonderful performance on Broadway in Pillowman (2005) nd on screen in Igby Goes Down (2002). In a brief turn as Morgan's visiting son from a half-forgotten earlier American marriage Olly Alexander is excellent, and unique. He was quite unforgettable when I first encountered him, romantically involved with Greta Gerwig in a little 2011 movie by Alison Bagnall, The Dish & the Spoon (SFIFF 2011).

In his review of Le Week-End Dennis Harvey of Variety nicely pinpoints some of its contradictions. Morgan's quality is a "generous yet completely self-absorbed joie de vivre"; and Meg and Jack are characters who are "as familiar as they are complicated." I would add that the bickering in the first half is annoying and vaguely uninteresting despite being subtle and specific. Things pick up when Jeff Goldblum, his character too both complex and a cliché, enters the scene providing a venue for the film's climax, a sort of self-abnegating encounter session so complete and brilliant (Morgan's son, come from his whiskey and marijuana in his bedroom -- briefly shared by Jack, to sit at the dinner table, calls Jack's speech "awesome") -- that it brings Meg and Jack back together again, and Morgan comes to save them from their dilemma with the posh hotel's possible legal action and the "maxing out" of Jack's one credit card. Ultimately Kureishi's "humor" has become too realistic and bitter to be very funny, and the use of Paris interiors and exteriors has been too glitzy and conventional. But this shows that Mitchell and Kureishi can still surprise us, and they know how to find impeccable actors. Olly Alexander is the icing on the cake. Some talk about love vs. sex is as profound as the dialogue gets. Ultimately this is a film with very few false steps and a number of good moments, and yet it tends to cancel itself out and end by being a fine diversion but not terribly memorable.

Le Week-End, 93 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2013, and was screened for this review as part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center. It opens in the UK 11 Oct. and the US 1 Nov. In France it opens on Christmas Day. Limited US roll-out began 14 March 2014. Metascore 73%.

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