Watching an aging, plump British man and his lovely wife gallivant around Paris like a couple of young lovers in Le Week-End, you’d be forgiven for thinking you had wandered into one of those politely condescending movies about elderly people acting like teenagers that seem to be having a resurgence these days. From Quartet to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, these films act as nice little diversions to smooth over the anxieties of aging. Le Week-End holds its gaze on the rough spots.
Having just seen the last of their children leave home for good, Nick (Jim Broadbent) and Meg (Lindsey Duncan) decide to take a long weekend in Paris to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary and rekindle the flame they hope will warm them through their golden years. At times it burns brightly: They amuse themselves playing dine-and-ditch at an upscale restaurant, and their public displays of affection cause even the younger onlookers to shout, “Get a room!”
But what the film captures most vividly about a long-term relationship is how the connection that binds two people together can produce both unbridled joy and abject misery, often in the same conversation. Nick asks Meg at one point, “Are you bipolar?” No, their marriage is. A moment of genuine affection can turn sour in an instant, while a vicious argument can end in hysterical laughter. None of this is atypical in a long marriage, of course, but it takes strong chemistry to pull it off. Director Roger Michell found the perfect pair in Broadbent and Duncan, two seasoned pros, whose commitment to their complex characters helps the film accommodate the shifts in tone. Michell’s naturalistic direction also helps keep the attention where it belongs: on the characters.
Still, the emotional roller-coaster can get a little exhausting. The film benefits from the introduction of a third character, Morgan (Jeff Goldblum), an old friend of Nick’s who invites the couple to a dinner party at his luxurious flat. Goldblum whirls into the movie overflowing with American charisma, effervescent and narcissistic, and he nearly steals the movie from the reserved British leads. At the party, Morgan works hard to please and entertain his old friends, but his phoniness is too much for Nick to bear: The gushing and superficial toast Morgan makes to him leads to a pivotal—and very public—outburst of honesty that has the potential to make or break the marriage for good.
It’s an effectively anxious moment in an even-keeled film that wisely underplays most of the drama. This isn’t Before Midnight; Nick and Meg don’t ever have that unbearable knock-down, drag-out fight; instead, Le Week-End depicts its troubled marriage as a continuing series of peaks and valleys that grow only more severe with age. Though it ends on a note of optimism, even this comes with an unspoken caveat driven home over the course of the preceding two hours: This too shall pass.