Midlife in Paris: Roger Michell guides an aging couple’s awkward second honeymoon in ‘Le Week-End’
A wish-fulfillment for those seeking adult content in its literal sense, as well as for feminist complainers, Le Week-End is one of its director’s three movies about grown-up relationships, with strong, even against-the-grain female roles. Is it a sign of the tide having turned, at least for now? One small detail: The filmmaker, a Brit, works out of London. And does it matter that he’s a guy?
I met with Roger Michell in the fall of 2013 when he was on hand for the screening of Le Week-End at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center. The 57-year-old was the essence of British cool with his quiet wit and upper-class charm, carrying my coffee to a “better” table—nice touch that—while discussing a movie with a title clearly referring to Jean-Luc Godard’s film. The Godard reference he says is “only there if you want it.” Still, the movie is set in Paris, takes place over a weekend, and is about a couple very much at odds with each other, and themselves. Though yes, he says, Godard references are dotted throughout. “Still, you don’t have to know about his movie to get the film.”
Michell adds, “It’s a movie young people will enjoy. But we wanted a film for older audiences and deeper minds.” In other interviews in other places he has called Le Week-End “a very small, complicated, dark film.” And he also points out that in terms of budget and crew, it is the most modest picture he has made, shot in an amazing 21 days. Music Box Films brings the comedy-drama to U.S. theatres on March 14.
The idea for the film germinated for eight years with the director and his frequent screenwriter, Hanif Kureishi (whose breakthrough My Beautiful Laundrette was not a Michell project). It’s the fourth collaboration between the two, who met in the late 1970s while working at the Royal Court Theatre. Part of the “research” for Le Week-End was a trip they took to Paris in order to map out the urban trails of their lead couple. Michell hilariously makes their venture sound like The Odd Couple as The Out-of-Towners.
Jim Broadbent, familiar to audiences worldwide after two Harry Potter films and the very different The Iron Lady, was first choice to play a long-in-the-tooth professor who is in a raggedy marriage. Lindsay Duncan, who plays his wife, and with whom Michell had worked in the British theatre as well as TV movies, was the only actor ever considered for her part. A highly regarded stage and television performer in England—only a few lucky theatre followers might know that she won an Olivier Award for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s original Les Liaisons Dangereuses—Duncan has not had the kind of American feature film role that makes for instant recognition from U.S. moviegoers. But that will clearly change with the 62-year-old’s twinkly yet tart-tongued performance.
At first, the writer-director team saw a third important character, Morgan, as French or East Indian, Michell says. But then he became an American, an Upper West Side New Yorker, when a wonderfully ironic Jeff Goldblum, who had worked with Michell on the director’s Morning Glory (2010), was cast. Michell reveals that Goldblum altered the emotional tone of the film, with some of the writing changed to accommodate his presence. Morgan is a much more complex character than he at first seems, the director says.
Broadbent and Duncan play Nick and Meg Burrows, a married couple in their 60s from Birmingham, England, marking their 30th anniversary by returning to Paris. They book themselves into the same rundown hotel where they honeymooned in its better days, but it is now, as Meg says tellingly, “beige.” It’s an instant metaphor for their marriage. One hope is to rekindle a flame which has long extinguished, as we see in a humiliatingly stinging bit for Nick. There are too a number of delicious but pricey dinners, an accidental meeting with Morgan (a former colleague of Nick’s), discussions about money (mainly lack of), and what to do about their layabout adult son still living at home. The more strong-willed Meg would like to kick him out; Nick demurs.
Whether or not the couple will even stay together comes up as Meg announces she wants her freedom after all these years. And Nick, once a promisingly brilliant philosopher, finally drops the bomb on her that he has been sacked by his university. Things come to a head when Morgan, a bright light in both the popular and academic world, now living in Paris with a younger second wife, invites them to a party at his apartment with some glamorous and successful young friends. An attractive younger man invites Meg out for a drink, and while she is upfront about this with Nick, she also informs him with devastating deliberateness, “I want to go.”
In the climactic dinner party scene, after Morgan salutes Nick as a knowledgeable mentor and loyal friend when they were at Cambridge together (and where Michell happens to have gone to college), Nick lets it all hang out. His career has nose-dived, his wife wants out, and he’s broke. But he also poses one of the central questions of the film, maybe our era: “Is it freedom to desert someone?” It’s a swipe at his wife, but also applies to Morgan and his life course: switching gears, wives and even cities. “The two men are sort of reverse-mirror images of each other,” Michell notes. “Yet they have a significant connection.”
“Still,” observes the subtle Michell, “You don’t quite know how the ending will go. It is some version of the dance.” Spoilers not needed here, though “the dance” refers to a kind of cute line dance the trio perform.
What is needed is some explanation of how Michell has managed to get three “grown-up” movies made. At times, Kureishi has called them their “Viagra Trilogy”—The Mother (2003), with a grandmother in love with a man half her age; Venus (2006), with the marvelous Peter O’Toole mooning over a teeny-bopper; and this film, which already opened abroad last year.
Michell’s analysis of the moviegoing audience in England makes a fascinating contrast with the situation in America, showing his shrewdness about marketability. In England, he says, there is a group referred to as the “the Gray Pound.” That would be the retired crowd with disposable income. They often go to the cinema during weekday afternoons, perhaps instead of the opera or theatre. By way of further explanation, Mitchell also refers to the “Pink Pound”—the gay audience who similarly may have some extra money, and perhaps no kids to support.
About his own motivation, Michell is straightforward: “I’m more interested in what people say to each other across the table than action.” Though he has made those kinds of films too, mostly in America, such as Changing Lanes (2002), and larger features like the U.K./U.S. romantic comedy Notting Hill (1999). Refusing to be categorized, Michell says he may change interests as he himself gets older.
Michell was born in South Africa to a diplomat father, lived all over the world as a child, and now lives with his own family in London. It seems that moving around—whether it’s continents or genres—comes easy to someone with that kind of background.