To rekindle the spark in their marriage, an older man takes his wife to the most romantic city in the world for a whirlwind weekend of food and courtship. It seems the perfect premise for a charming if slightly quaint romantic comedy, focused on people who seldom get to take centre stage in Hollywood. Certainly, its marketing campaign has focused on the film's sharp, giddy bursts of joy and emotion, suggesting that love later in life is possible and even glorious. But, make no mistake about it, Le Week-End is far from a sweet and simple exercise in wish-fulfilment. In fact, this is a prickly, frequently painful look at a relationship that works as much as it doesn't: a bond forged through time, heartache and anger that could as easily be mistaken for love as for hate.
Nick (Jim Broadbent) and Meg (Lindsay Duncan) - a couple who have been married for decades - return to Paris, where they had their honeymoon. It soon becomes clear that Nick is desperately keen to make his marriage work again, even as his wife tries - sometimes with great determination, sometimes half-heartedly - to suggest that they go their separate ways. Their son is grown, you see, and there's nothing except years of knowing and being with each other to hold them together.
The film is at its finest when Nick and Meg walk the streets of Paris, their bickering and banter hinting at the rot that has set into their marriage. There is love between them, but not the kind that swells the heart with dreams of romance and magic. It's worn, and tattered, and quite possibly fading. They argue over their good-for-nothing son - Nick wants to take care of him, Meg thinks he should be independent - and Meg finds out that Nick is close to losing his job. They say hurtful things because, after long years of marriage, they know just what to say to really twist the knife. Le Week-End, at least in the beginning, is refreshingly free of sentiment, instead taking a long, hard look at the quiet, seemingly inconsequential tragedies that can eat away at a long relationship.
The character work is also quite wonderful. Neither Nick nor Meg is easily categorised or stuffed into a stereotype. When Nick meets his old college friend Morgan (Jeff Goldblum) in the streets, he's forced to confront the tiny disappointments that have made up his life. It adds depth to this portrait of a man whose eagerness to please is rooted in his abject terror of being alone. On her part, Meg can come across as almost brutally distant, someone who's withdrawn into herself to shake the feeling that something went quite badly wrong in the life she's leading.
Credit is due especially to Broadbent and Duncan, who fearlessly create characters and forge an intriguing chemistry that carry the film through its weaker moments. Broadbent is the tremulous heart of the film, and Duncan its gritty spirit. Together, they make the push and pull between Nick and Meg rich and sad at the same time: these are clearly people who could be better apart, but might not survive the separation.
Where Le Week-End falters is in its good but troubled script by Hanif Kureishi. His characters speak in dialogue that's razor-sharp, reeling off lines that are beautifully crafted but - because they occur with such regularity - can sometimes come off as fake or pretentious. It's jarring in a film that's otherwise so determined to be clear-eyed about romance and love in the real world. The film wraps up awkwardly as well, as if it's not quite sure where to leave this couple: to suggest a happy ending would be to undo its entire narrative trajectory, and yet there can be nothing simple about a pair of lives so tangled and complex.
Anyone hankering after a sweet, gentle romantic comedy set in the cobblestoned streets of Paris should look elsewhere - Le Week-End is dark and sometimes heartbreaking, suffused as it is with a love that's been broken down by loss, sacrifice and disappointment. It's funny, but often in a bittersweet way, and the relationship at its heart sometimes feels as if it might be beyond salvation. Perversely, that's what makes the film work - but it most certainly won't be to everyone's tastes.