One of the joys of attending the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival was the generous helping of adult-oriented romance on offer, from Nicole Holofcener’s funny and wise “Enough Said” to the ruefully triumphant Chilean drama “Gloria.” One of the sparkliest jewels in that crown was “Le Week-End,” an alternately prickly and knowing tone poem to desire and disappointment whose light touch belies far deeper, darker human understandings.
“Le Week-End” begins on a train, which in this case is conveying Meg and Nick — an academic couple from Birmingham, England — to a Paris getaway. While a gorgeous jazz score plays, we watch as they engage in what are obviously age-old travel rituals (“You’ve got the euros”), in a scene that recalls Stanley Donen’s 1967 marriage travelogue, “Two for the Road.” Recall the most stinging exchange in that film: “What kind of people sit like that without a word to say to each other?” asked Audrey Hepburn’s character, observing a couple in a restaurant. “Married people,” Albert Finney replied sourly.
“Le Week-End” possesses that same tone of wintry, hard-gained wisdom, as Meg and Nick’s sojourn reignites youthful passions on the one hand, and years of accumulated resentments and regrets on the other. Such a candid portrait of warts-and-all intimacy would be a slow, depressing slog were it not for the fact that it has been so gracefully executed: Roger Michell, known best for such sweet-natured romantic comedies as “Notting Hill,” directs a script by the great Hanif Kureishi (“My Beautiful Launderette”). Meg and Nick are brought funnily, bitingly to life by the equally fabulous Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent.
“It’s . . . beige,” a crestfallen Meg murmurs when they enter what will be the first of their hotel rooms. “There’s a certain light-brownness about it, yes,” Nick replies, a tad defensively. At first Meg seems to be the heedless romantic of the two, eager to splash out on pricey dinners, talking about the Zumba classes she’s taking to “redesign” her body. Nick worries about money and “likes things settled.” But gradually, “Le Week-End” reveals gnarlier truths beneath the neat categories, especially in bed, where Nick tries to rekindle amatory passion and is curtly rebuffed. “You’re hot,” he says to Meg at one point. “Hot but cold.”
Oof. “Le Week-End” continues in this vein, the exchanges alternating between tender and venomous, until a human wild card arrives on the scene in the form of Jeff Goldblum, who introduces notes of anarchic, daffy humor that send the film into flights of escalating, antic fancy — a crescendo that climaxes in a breathtakingly frank dinner-table aria to rival anything those battling, bickering Westons of Osage County can dish out.
As a portrait of middle-age boredom, dissatisfaction, fury and creeping mortality, “Le Week-End” may sound to some viewers like it’s too close to the bone to be that much fun. But in the capable hands of these fine filmmakers and actors, even its most bitter observations about life and aging are nearly always reliably balanced by moments of warmth, understanding and out-and-out screwball humor.
The late writer Nora Ephron once said that the last thing you know is your effect: “Le Week-End” pays homage to that notion with a combination of resignation and heartening good cheer. What kind of people go to Paris only to fight and cry, laugh and play and behave like fools? Married people, of course. C’est l’amour.
★ ★ ★ ½
R. At area theaters. Contains profanity and some sexual content. 93 minutes.