I had to strain in my last double feature finding a connection between a one-off Rohmer and an indie Lynch wannabe. This time it should not be as difficult: two movies written by Hanif Kureishi, one an early screenplay written when he was in his early 30s (Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) and the other his most recent, just out on DVD (Le Week-End) written as he approached 60.
Similar theme–what makes a couple? Written at different ages, though. Vive la difference.
First, a spoiler alert, big time: below is Jim Broadbent’s soliloquy near the end of Le Week-End.
Broadbent, a once rising star in philosophy, is now by his own account a mediocre hack and at the end of his tether physically, emotionally and professionally. His wife threatens to leave him, quite brazenly and in some ways cruelly. On their “romantic” week-end in Paris he is invited to a dinner party hosted by an old protégé (Jeff Goldblum), someone whose work he does not respect but who has gone on to great success as a writer.
Goldblum exudes his usual weaselly, seemingly insincere charm but stands at the dinner table to give a surprise, and apparently heartfelt, tribute to Broadbent, about whom he says “he made me say true things for the first time in my short and well-upholstered Yankee life.” Surprised and . . . what? . . . touched? Embarrassed? Honored? Humiliated?, Broadbent now stands, reluctantly and probably in both emotional and physical pain:
Thank you for that, Morgan.
I’m grateful for what you said.
I’m surprised, too,
and taken aback, quite far back.
But I was reminded of something.
Of the self
I hide in myself.
I’m still an anarchist
of the left, I suppose.
I’m still a fool for the truth.
Always my weak point.
So I suppose I should,
on that basis, point out
that the university where I teach
is not a proper university,
but it’s an ex-polytechnic, which is now
a factory on the outskirts of Birmingham,
set up to produce only idiocy.
I should point out that
I have just been sacked
for apparently speaking inappropriately
to a female black student.
My older son is a pot-head with rats
in the house that we bought for him
with the last of our savings.
His chosen profession is to watch
television in the afternoons.
Every bone and muscle in my
body screams with agony
when I attempt to tie my shoelaces.
I’m near shitting myself with fear
and anxiety every moment of the day.
Plus the fact my wife is well aware
that I only cling to her like a
drowning man to a shelf of melting ice
because no one else would touch me.
She’s planning, in fact,
to give me the slip later this evening
in order to be with another man.
Well, good for her.
And good for him, too.
So think of me as
falling out of a window…
For I am truly fucked.
That is a Hanif Kureishi soliloquy. One thing you can say about work by Kureishi, whether screenplay or novel: it is well and truly written.
No mistaking his work for a documentary, the way some viewers took in Linklater’s Boyhood. No canned dialogue simply at the service of getting the McGuffin to the right place at the right time. Written.
Kureishi has been an off-again on-again screenwriter since 1985. That’s when the screenplay for My Beautiful Laundrette was brought to the screen by Stephen Frears, with Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead role. Laundrette didn’t exactly begin the careers of the three. Frears had directed Gumshoe in 1971 and The Hit in 1984. And Day-Lewis had been around here and there (I just saw him in a bit part in Gandhi the other day). But Laundrette, small as it was, was a film that caught people’s attention for the triple whammy of having been beautifully written, directed and acted.
But today’s then-and-now double feature will not use Laundrette as the bookend representing early Kureishi. Instead, let’s use the next Frears-Kureishi collaboration from 1987, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. Why? Per the above, it’s got a similar theme as Le Week-End.
SRGL is one of my favorite films–to me one of the films that defines the 1980s. Oddly enough, it is tough to track down. As far as I know there is no DVD version. Thankfully, the entire film is available, for the moment at least, on YouTube. But talk about forgotten: the Wikipedia entry is all of one sentence.
That’s not the half of it, or the tenth even. SRGL is a kaliedoscopic, artsy, irritating, profane, brilliant take on Thatcherism, the decline of Empire, third world dictatorships, the plusses and minuses of free love/free whatever and a treatise (maybe) on the limits of libertinism and anarchism, or maybe a celebration of same. Oh, and what it means to be in love and to have a true lover.
At the outset Sammy is living “a promiscuous bohemian lifestyle” with his lover Rosie. They have an open relationship, which in their case means they get laid but not with each other. Something missing, there? Sammy’s seemingly genial Pakistani father, from whom he is estranged, spent his early years loving London and the West–at least until he returned to Pakistan as an anti-colonialist, shortly rising to power in the process drenching his hands in blood. He is in unspecified trouble in his home country and comes for a visit as a kind of getaway.
Characters abound. It’s not quite an Altman-style free for all, but it is close. It is certainly anarchic in spirit and sensibility. What makes it not a total Altman free-for-all is that, despite the hustle and bustle and the complex overlay of politics, sex and disorder it is ultimately about Sammy and Rosie. Will they get laid . . . with each other? Do they, will they love one another?
Kureishi gets to that focused point at the end, just barely, but paints on a broad canvas throughout. When you paint that broadly like that you have to work efficiently, summoning up a character–ping!–just like that.
Take the opening scene. Here, the camera pans to look inside a car on the London tube. We see Roland Gift (the lead singer from Fine Young Cannibals, if you remember your 80s). He will emerge in the movie as an important minor character, in some ways the character that best incorporates the multiple contradictions of modern London. Hey Officer Krupke, he’s enigmatic because he’s paradigmatic!
He is seen intensely scratching something down on paper, completely absorbed, but as the doors to the car start to close–pow!–Gift, transformed, jumps up to make his exit. Now fully charged up, he remains gracious enough nonetheless to hold the door for an elderly woman passenger. And once extricated from the door, he turns and gives a casual and warm smile to the conductor. He then walks down the platform and we see a kind of anarchist band coming our way, straight out of Blow-Up. This ties the enigmatic Gift character to the exuberant but unstable London we are about to see. And it takes all of 30 seconds or so, in a few short beats, to establish all this.
Or take the economy with which Sammy’s father is introduced to us, riding in a cab from the airport.
Ten seconds does it:
To me England is hot buttered toast on a fork in front of an open fire . . . and cunty fingers.
The profanity is part of the fun. Take our introduction to Sammy himself. After a langourous camera shot up the backside of someone we might take to be Rosie, revealing the letter “W” tattooed on each cheek. But we find that it is not Rosie at all but someone else with Sammy. What gives? And what gives with the tattooed “W”s?
The characters are now set to range around a London that is by turns exhilarating, liberating, sad and dangerous, undertaking their own erratic and contradictory journeys. Suffice it to say that at the end there is a kind of tragedy, followed by a sense that the two lovers realize how much they may have potentially lost in their desire for freedom. Whether that means it’s a happy ending, or whether they “stay together”–well, that’s just as unclear as it was at the close of Before Midnight. But it may well be that we can expect at least a somewhat higher degree of conventionality from Sammy and Rosie henceforth. You don’t have to be a Thatcherite to see that freedom has its limits, at least at certain times and in certain places, maybe.
So now back to poor Jim Broadbent. He and his wife have more or less followed the conventional life as regards their own marriage and marriage vows. But we can see from his dinner speech that he is not in a good place. Like Sammy, he wonders what it means to be in a relationship. Unlike Sammy, he has had a whole life “staying together”, but it seems to count for very little at his current pass. We’ve kind of come full circle, with no easy answers or easy outs either way.
Sammy and Rosie were forced by reality to come to their own truth. With Broadbent and his wife, it’s the other way round. They’ve had their conventionality, and the only way to their truth is to escape to a freer, more liberating, place. That is also not likely to work well but what choice does the old codger have?