Interior – evening. Three couples at a dinner party. Everyone is so hyper-articulate it’s scary. Couple one is CÉLINE (Julie Delpy) and JESSE (Ethan Hawke), both in their 40s, brainy and bohemian. He’s an American novelist of some renown; she’s French and between jobs. They fell in love one night in Vienna in 1995, but didn’t stay together; nine years ago they reunited. He has one son from a former marriage, and together they have twin girls.
Couple two is MEG (Lindsay Duncan) and NICK (Jim Broadbent), both in their 60s and British academics. They married 30 years ago, and have a grown son who’s still financially dependent on them. Couple three are the hosts. They’re busy in the kitchen, clearing away dinner and readying dessert, so we don’t see them yet. Many bottles of wine have been drunk.
CÉLINE (charming French accent): Meg and Nick, we have a funny story to tell you.
JESSE: I’m not sure you should tell this story, Céline.
CÉLINE: Oh, don’t be such a baby. They’re sophisticated, they’ll laugh. (To Meg and Nick) We were watching the movie about you, Le Week-End, which is now in theatres.
NICK: The screenwriter is Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette) and the director is Roger Michell (Notting Hill).
MEG: They know that, you ridiculous old hen.
CÉLINE: In the middle of your film, our babysitter texted that she was locked out, so we had to leave. In the car on the way home, we confessed to one another that we were sort of glad.
MEG: Really. And why is that?
JESSE: Well, your movie is about a couple who goes to Paris for their 30th wedding anniversary, and it asks the question, “Should you stick with a relationship that isn’t entirely happy because you have history together, and because ‘happiness’ isn’t realistic? Or should you be willing to blow it all up and start over no matter who gets hurt (as the character of your old school chum, played by Jeff Goldblum, does), because we only get one life?” From the start it’s clear that you two love and hate one another in equal measure. Nick is weak, Meg is mercurial –
MEG (furious): Mercurial? I’m mercurial?! She bursts out in hysterical laughter, then beams warmly.
MEG: What are you waiting for? Continue.
JESSE: Well. To be honest, Meg – because I pride myself on being honest – you’re terrifying. I was discussing you with Céline – we discuss everything, by the way. Every. Little. Thing. For a really long time, because we love how smart-talky we are – and we were saying how difficult it is to set a movie in the middle of a relationship, to show the churn and roil of everyday love in a way that’s honest and revealing, without growing tiresome. To show how love flattens or ebbs away sometimes, and then surges in unexpected moments. To be honest about what a minefield sex can be, even when both partners have the best intentions, or how things can turn sweet or sour with a single word or look. All of which is really interesting.
CÉLINE: But as we talked, I found myself saying, “Well, Meg thinks such-and-such,” and Jesse was saying, “Is that so? Because Nick thinks this-and-that.” After a few minutes it was pretty clear that we weren’t talking about Meg and Nick, but ourselves. Things got pretty tense for a date night. We decided that I should go back and watch the rest of it – but with women friends, to see if my reaction changed – and then recommend to Jesse whether he should go back, too. I mean, how funny if your movie caused us to split up!
MEG: Isn’t that fascinating. It may interest you to know that we had a similar reaction to the movie about you two, Before Midnight, which takes place on the last night of your summer holiday in Greece, when you’re trying to decide whether to go back to Paris, which is what Céline wants, or move to the States so that Jesse can be closer to his son during his all-important teen years.
NICK: It was directed by Richard Linklater and co-written by the three of you, and is the third part of the trilogy that includes Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. The screenplay was nominated for an Oscar, and the film is out on DVD.
MEG (to Nick): Yes, yes, they know that. Good God, how do you get through a single hour with that absurd personality of yours? (To Jesse and Céline) At any rate, as Nick and I were discussing your film – fractiously, of course – I found myself taking your side, Céline. We agree that, though roles within a marriage are changing, it’s still women who bear the brunt of family maintenance, and so you’re entitled to that Gibraltar-sized chip on your shoulder. But when I discussed your film later, with my women friends, we agreed that you were possibly insane, and Jesse was miraculously patient to put up with you. But we couldn’t admit that to our spouses because we felt we were letting down the side.
NICK: “The side.” That’s the ticket. I maintain that the strength of both our films is that they show how pointless and dangerous it is to take sides. Though it’s a hoot to watch how beautifully we each articulate our positions, ultimately it’s clinging to a position that keeps us stuck, and surrendering that moves us forward. Our films vividly demonstrate that love requires kindness, and that both parties have to remember to be kind, even when it seems difficult or boring.
For a moment, everyone’s face softens with love for everyone else. Then the hosts enter: Rachel (Meryl Streep) and Mark (Jack Nicholson), from 1986’s Heartburn, written by Nora Ephron from her novel, and directed by Mike Nichols. Rachel is holding a key lime pie, which she tops off with whipped cream while Mark talks.
MARK: You think your movies inspire couples to fight on the way home from the theatre? I bet our movie, which is about two writers who break up because I cheat on her and she can’t forgive me, caused more fights than both of yours put together. Because our movie admits something that your two, under their tsunamis of words and behaviours, flirt with, but don’t consummate: Sometimes love dies. Sometimes you just don’t want to do it any more. And that’s a line you can’t put on a movie poster. Look at the great love stories – the couples never end up together. Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, Love Story, The Way We Were, Out of Africa –
As Mark talks, Rachel holds up the pie, now topped with a mountain of whipped cream. She proffers it to Jesse, Céline, Meg and Nick. Together, everyone shoves the pie in Mark’s face.
He stops talking. For a beat, he wipes the cream off his eyelids and smacks his lips, tasting the pie.
MARK: As I was saying. Relationships – the more things change, the more they stay the same.