Even in a familiar plot — a bickering couple's Paris second honeymoon — Le Week-End finds notes of surprise and grace 

Two for the Rue

Two for the Rue

The third-act narrative of couples in twilight isn't likely to displace the white-knuckle thriller or superhero franchise in Hollywood's portfolio. But it has become a reliable profit niche — after all, middle-aged folks buy movie tickets too. Wrangle a collection of weathered, beloved stars; introduce easily resolved conflict (e.g. money, children, sex); then wrap all in a comfy, feel-good conclusion. None of this is necessarily bad. Not only are these undertold stories pitched to an underserved demographic, but occasionally the formula produces a left-field winner — last year's Chilean crowd-pleaser Gloria, for example.

Too often, however, films like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or Hope Springs register as little more than genial, well-intentioned product. And from its cutesy title to its button-pushing trailer, Roger Michell's Le Week-End seems to promise more of the same. British couple Nick (Jim Broadbent) and Meg (Lindsay Duncan) are celebrating their 30th anniversary by restaging their honeymoon in Paris dogged by familiar baggage — i.e., money, children, sex. But Michell's unfussy direction and Hanif Kureishi's well-observed script give substance and detail to formulaic elements. The casual bickering cuts deeper. The framing and camera angles are disorienting; the edits, rushed. Meg's dissatisfaction seems grounded in years of disappointment, Nick's befuddlement rooted in genuine distress. Easy resolution is hardly a given.

Structurally and thematically, Le Week-End resembles some future installment in Richard Linklater's Before series. The film's chief pleasure is spending time with an intelligent, articulate, often funny pair of fully realized individuals. Their verbal sparring and hushed intimacies are foregrounded, with Paris rendered largely in the margins. In something of a visual signature, Ken and Meg are captured in medium-close shot with the Eiffel Tower viewed off to the left in the distance. Yet the film still functions as a muted city symphony — one viewed through the prism of its principals' actions and emotions. Even as their increasingly reckless and erratic behavior threatens to reduce their surroundings to an adult playground, Paris' street life pulses and glistens.

And as with the Linklater films, Le Week-End is an actors' showcase. The always strong Broadbent seems exhausted — by compromise, by an unfulfilling career (he's just been dismissed by his second-tier university), by the riddle of his wife's resentment. His understated humor and boyish twinkle form a last defense against irrelevance. As his less sympathetic partner, Duncan is a revelation: unforgiving, brittle, caustic, but also playful and sexy. She's trying desperately to force a reaction, any reaction — something to shake them from their complacency. Together they're at once entrenched enemy combatants and co-conspirators with a shared secret language.

Midway through the proceedings, during a romantic uptick, Jeff Goldblum's Morgan bursts upon the couple as if from another film. An American fellow traveler from Ken's Cambridge years, he represents unseized opportunity — he's affluent, professionally well-regarded, comfortable among Paris' intellectual elite. His broad, lanky, good-spirited presence seems tonally at odds with the film's hermetic core. But Morgan's over-large personality proves crucial, acting as a catalyst to unearth the couple's underlying tensions and tenderness. In a somewhat forced dinner party turned public meltdown, Ken and Meg's habitual bickering-reconciliation pattern is pressed to uncomfortable extremes.

Ultimately, the director cares too much about his creations to scrap their shared 30 years. But he also respects their lived-in dynamic too much to force a pat resolution. As Nick notes in the ebb of one early squabble, "You can't not love and hate the same person, usually within the space of five minutes." So instead Michell opts for ellipsis. After an emotionally draining weekend of self-examination and recrimination, Ken and Meg share a prolonged moment of "what next" silence before Morgan once again interrupts, this time initiating a movie lover's sweet reverie — and uniting a shaggy band of outsiders in dance.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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