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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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism