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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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.