10 great films about the weekend

To mark the release of Le Week-end, starring Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan as a married couple on a minibreak in Paris, chase away the weekday blues with our 10 great movies about the weekend.

Samuel Wigley
Updated:

Le Week-end (2013)

Le Week-end (2013)

Ahh, the weekend. How we all long for it to come along. A trip to the pub, a night on the tiles, a day in the park, leisurely breakfasts with the papers – what sweet bliss those 48 hours bring when many of us are freed from the demands of the working week.

The release of Roger Michell’s Le Week-end, featuring Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan as an ageing married couple who embark on a weekend to Paris in order to relive their honeymoon, had us pondering weekends on film. Since weekends are so often about time to relax and unwind, there’s a whole tranche of cinema in which these days seem barely to exist. Films thrive on action and dynamism, not characters putting their feet up or idly whiling away the hours until the Monday morning alarm clock. Are the days of the week even recognised in, for example, the James Bond series? For 007, every day seems to be a day in her majesty’s service.

Still, there are other films when the hedonistic pleasures of a Saturday night on the town or a weekend getaway are a chance to get under the skin of humankind when we least expect it – when we’re at leisure. Our list of 10 classic weekend films takes in wild nights dancing and Sundays of repose, trips away and country-house gatherings. Plans are made, love affairs are brokered, work is forgotten, even if – as so often in the cinema – not everything goes as expected…

People on Sunday (1930)

Directors Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer

Monday morning coming around, with its dread return to work and duties, has rarely been so keenly felt in the cinema as it is at the end of People on Sunday. A paean to the idle pleasures of the weekend, this self-styled “film without actors” follows the pursuits of five ordinary Berliners (played by amateurs) as they enjoy their weekly days off in the sunshine – dressing up, going for drinks or to the pictures, and taking excursions for lake swimming, picnics and reclining on the grass.

A valuable document of a happy moment in German life prior to the Great Depression and the rise of Nazism, this innovative symphony of a city proved a springboard for several future filmmaking talents: co-directors Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, writer Billy Wilder and camera assistant Fred Zinnemann would all go on to major directorial careers as exiles in Hollywood.

La Règle du jeu (1939)

Director Jean Renoir

The weekend as country-house break. Aristocrat Robert de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio) invites a circle of his upper-crust friends for a weekend of shooting and fine dining at his country estate in Sologne. Among their number is celebrated aviator André Jurieu (Roland Toutain), who happens to be conducting an affair with Robert’s wife, Christine (Nora Gregor). Meanwhile, below stairs, Christine’s maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost), the gamekeeper’s wife, will catch the eye of an incorrigible poacher (Julien Carette), as the weekend begins to come off its axis, spinning through farce and into tragedy.

Made on the eve of the Second World War, director Jean Renoir’s vision of a society teetering on the brink of chaos was banned by the French government for two decades after its release, before later being acclaimed as one of the greatest of all films. It’s the only film to have appeared every time in Sight & Sound’s once-a-decade poll, while its DNA can be traced in everything from Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and The Shooting Party (1985) to Downton Abbey (2010- ) via Gosford Park (2001).

The Lost Weekend (1945)

Director Billy Wilder

A warning to us all about those weekends of over-indulgence, Billy Wilder’s 1945 dipsomania drama The Lost Weekend is perhaps cinema’s first real treatment of the subject of alcoholism. Ray Milland plays Don Birnam, a New York writer who’s struggling to stay on the wagon, but who’s taken to dangling whiskey bottles outside of his window to conceal it from his friends. Birnam takes time out from work for a cure, but this turns into an especially intense four-day binge, in which his hallucinations of bats and mice are brought to terrifying life.

Wilder had been moved to treat the topic after working with author Raymond Chandler, then a recovering alcoholic, on Double Indemnity (1944), and his expressionist recreation of the living hell of addiction would go on to win multiple Oscars, including best picture, best director and best actor.

It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)

Director Robert Hamer

There’s a bang on the Sandigate sisters’ bedroom wall. Their stepmother (“the old bag!”) wants her morning cup of tea. Doris and Vi stir in bed. Doris notices Vi wore her party dress to sleep. “I couldn’t undress, I was so tight,” Vi explains with relish. “Yes, tight! Stinkin’! Fella took me to a roadhouse and didn’t get back till after three.”

This vivid British noir is set over a single Sunday in Bethnal Green, a world of morning cups of tea, a read through the Sunday paper (full of the news of a convict escaped from Dartmoor prison), roast dinners of lamb and mint sauce, and a pint or two down The Two Compasses. The convict will upset this equilibrium, seeking shelter from the law in the arms of the Sandigate matriarch (Googie Withers), an old flame. But in truth this market community already has its fair share of deceit, adultery and low-level criminality going around. Quite apart from creating an indelible entry in the canon of moody thrillers in which the rain never stops, director Robert Hamer’s real achievement here is in creating a fulsome picture of the East End in the postwar years that remains as fascinating and familiar as it is beguiling.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

Director Karel Reisz

In its attention to a realistic, downtrodden milieu of pubs, cafés and markets, It Always Rains on Sunday pointed the way forward to the late-1950s and early-1960s trend in British cinema for so-called kitchen sink dramas, which put working-class experience front and centre.

In Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, based on a novel by Alan Sillitoe, Albert Finney plays Arthur Seaton, a young Nottingham factory worker who rages at his lot in life, living for the weekend when he can spend his wages drinking and carousing. It’s a lifestyle that will land him in trouble, whether shooting his mouth off in the pub or philandering with the wife of a co-worker. But Reisz’s film is no finger-wagging social problem film. Instead, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning offers simply a slice of life, an evocative depiction of existence in one of Britain’s industrial cities, and – in Arthur Seaton – a new kind of rabble-rousing protagonist.

Week End (1967)

Director Jean-Luc Godard

What could be more natural than the urbanite desire to escape the city for a weekend in the countryside? Parisian couple Roland (Jean Yanne) and Corinne (Mireille Darc) have it in mind to flee the capital to visit Corinne’s parents, but neither of them bank on the mother of all traffic jams slowing their route out of the city. There’s an air of foreboding and deceit hanging over the opening scenes of Jean-Luc Godard’s apocalyptic 1967 satire: there’s talk of murder, and a lengthily erotic phone conversation involving eggs. But with one astonishing, prolonged take, Week End shifts gears into the truly nightmarish, the camera tracking past a seemingly endless cavalcade of stationary cars, roadside violence and automobile destruction.

Thus begins an increasingly bizarre, picaresque odyssey into the French countryside in which Godard once and for all uproots himself from the tradition of narrative cinema, lighting one last almighty fuse under such bourgeois conceits before his decade-long move into Marxist agit-video.

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Director John Badham

Like Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Tony Manero (John Travolta) lives for Saturday night. Real life is a dead-end job in a hardware store and family mealtimes with his Italian-American family in their drab Brooklyn home, but come Saturday he’s preening himself in front of his bedroom mirror, riding to club 2001 Odyssey in the company of his chauvinist friends, then strutting his stuff on the disco dancefloor, where glitterballs refract kaleidoscopes of light around the room.

From its electrifying opening moments, with the narcissistic Manero striding along a New York street to the strains of the Bee Gees’ ‘Stayin’ Alive’, John Badham’s 1977 sensation Saturday Night Fever is one of film history’s most intoxicating odes to the freedom and decadence of the weekend. Guilty it may be of whitewashing black experience out of the disco movement, but it remains an essential document of a time and place, its hit-packed soundtrack album alone ensuring its enduring classic status.

Long Weekend (1978)

Director Colin Eggleston

“Their crime was against nature”, went the poster for this splendidly nasty Australian exploitation film. “Nature found them guilty.” Director Colin Eggleston’s eco-thriller is the story of a bickering married couple, Peter (John Hargreaves) and Marcia (Briony Behets), who go camping for a weekend in the Australian bush, only to find that Mother Nature takes a rather dim view of their habitual polluting and animal cruelty.

Expanding the apocalyptic scenario of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) to take in the entire natural world, Long Weekend sees the animal kingdom fighting back against these imposters with a series of escalating attacks. Remade in 2008, Eggleston’s original is one of the gems of 70s Ozploitation, even if – of all the weekends on this list – it presents perhaps the least enviable.

Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979)

Director John Sayles

The weekend as school reunion. Remembered as a key stepping stone on the path to the American independent cinema of the 1980s and 1990s, John Sayles’s 1979 debut feature is the story of a seven-strong coterie of school friends reuniting for a weekend at a New Hampshire country house.

Maturing baby-boomers all, the friends live with the memories of their own student idealism, which rests unfulfilled or compromised as they approach middle age. Relationships are on the rocks, careers aren’t delivering, and over the course of the weekend Sayles (with great humour and empathy) charts nothing less than the disappointments of a generation. The baby-boomer reunion recipe was warmed over to huge commercial advantage with 1983’s The Big Chill, which fogged the lens with nostalgia but led to a mini-cycle of reunion movies.

Weekend (2011)

Director Andrew Haigh

Andrew Haigh’s second feature takes place over a single weekend in Nottingham, returning to some of the same locations featured in that earlier weekend-centred drama, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. On a Friday night, leaving a friend’s house party, Russell (Tom Cullen) heads to a club, where he hits it off with Glen (Chris New). Waking up together the next morning, the pair spends all of Saturday and Sunday together, talking, having sex, and slowly getting to know each other across a long and leisurely weekend.

It’s a great film about mutual feeling blooming between two people, which Haigh traces with remarkable veracity and lack of sentiment. But it’s also one of the few movies to capture at once the indulgent languor of lazy weekends and their sense of opportunity. What a difference two days make.

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Available to buy

  • People on Sunday

    People on Sunday

    A tale of five young Berliners, a taxi driver, a travelling wine dealer, a record shop sales girl, a film extra and a model, on a typical Sunday.

  • La Règle du jeu

    La Règle du jeu

    Jean Renoir’s brilliant social comedy is a study in the corruption and decay of French society on the eve of the outbreak of the second world war.

  • Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

    Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

    Karel Reisz’s seminal film of the British New Wave.

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