Le Week-End: Ongoing saga

This picture downgrades its ambitions along the way. When Nick says he wants to take his and Meg's lovemaking into another dimension, it sounds like an unpromising episode of The Twilight Zone.

Every generation deserves its own escapist entertainment, soft on the eyes and the soul but of minimal nutritional value. So the arrival of Le Week-End, a bit of throwaway fluff aimed at the over-sixties, is to be welcomed. Early on, this story of a couple who return to Paris many decades after their honeymoon there seems to be shaping up as a senior citizens’ spin on the Before series, most obviously the second instalment, in which Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy walk and talk and bicker up and down the Seine. Lindsay Duncan, who plays Meg in Le Week-End, even possesses the tart and twitchy beauty of an older Delpy. Could this be not so much Before Sunset as After Saga?

Sadly not. The picture downgrades its ambitions along the way: it’s a doodle, though not without fizz or merit. It marks the fourth collaboration between the director Roger Michell and the screenwriter Hanif Kureishi. Though their working relationship began 20 years ago when Michell directed the BBC adaptation of The Buddha of Suburbia, their subsequent films together have revolved around the subject of age. In The Mother, a widow in her sixties has a passionate affair with a builder 30-odd years her junior, and in Venus the intergenerational relationship between a young woman and an elderly actor is chirpy but chaste.

Sex in Le Week-End is less a going concern than a running joke. Nick (Jim Broadbent) tells Meg: “Over these past five to ten years, your vagina has become something of a closed book.” She would prefer to see the Eiffel Tower than his “partially erect sausage”. When he says he wants to take their lovemaking into another dimension, it sounds like an unpromising episode of The Twilight Zone.

His wish is sincere. He suggests that they pretend to be other people and Meg laughs, though of course that is precisely why they have come to Paris: to escape themselves, or to re-establish contact with the people they once were. Meg’s prognosis for their marriage is bleak. When Nick claims that “people don’t change”, she replies acidly: “They do. They can get worse.” Nick describes himself as “an anarchist of the left” but also mourns his own mediocrity. He has recently been sacked from his university teaching job for making inappropriate remarks about the hairstyle and economic prospects of a young black student. The sort of misjudgement that has cataclysmic consequences in David Mamet’s Oleanna or Philip Roth’s The Human Stain is consigned here to the realm of “noises off”. The real drama lies in what happens, or doesn’t happen, between Meg and Nick. A discussion about breaking up is interrupted by chit-chat about new tiling ideas for the bathroom; bursts of spite or rage give way in an instant to fondness as the conversational see-saw rises and falls.

None of this is overly compelling. The handsome locations yoo-hoo on cue. Kureishi’s dialogue sounds as epigrammatic as ever: this is manifestly a screenplay that sits more comfortably on the page than on the tongue. But any stiltedness is largely offset by Nathalie Durand’s light, loose camerawork and some lived-in performances. From the latter compliment we must exempt Jeff Goldblum, who is indulged horribly as one of Nick’s old Oxford chums. Perhaps he had it written into his contract that he would be allowed to hijack the part rather than just play it. Either way, the film screeches to a halt whenever he lapses into his extraterrestrial lounge-lizard shtick.

To any criticism levelled against Le Week-End, there is always a built-in riposte in the form of Lindsay Duncan. It remains one of the enduring disgraces of British cinema that she has been so overlooked and underemployed by the medium. She has amassed only a small finger buffet of film work, including her 1983 screen debut in a joyful screwball double act with Stephen Rea in Loose Connections and a cameo turn helping to decipher Joe Orton’s shorthand diaries in Prick Up Your Ears. In Le Week-End she transforms fleeting reaction shots into miniature arias of sighing sadness, then joyfully re-creates the dance scene from Godard’s Bande à part a moment later. “You’re hot,” Nick tells Meg. “Hot but cold.” Duncan conveys both extremes without losing her inner warmth.

Bit of fluff: Broadbent and Duncan in Le Week-End

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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The world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times