Le Divorce

“Ivory may not be the best at packing an emotional punch, but he definitely knows how to give us the ooh-la-la.”


French (Dis)Connection

New Merchant Ivory film lacks a certain je ne sais quois, but is tres jolie

Based on the critically acclaimed 1997 Diane Johnson novel of the same name, Le Divorce, the newest offering from director James Ivory and his longtime producing partner Ishmael Merchant, is a witty examination of the seemingly insurmountable divide between French and American cultures. Like the French, whom Ivory clearly adores and admires, it is smart, funny and incredibly chic. And, like the French, it is, at the same time, distinctly impersonal.

That hardly comes as a surprise, really, as Ivory has often displayed a tendency toward emotional restraint in his films. For the most part, his detached directorial style has served him well, particularly in the lush adaptations of historical literature – Sense and Sensibility, Howard’s End, Maurice, A Room With a View, et al – for which the moniker “Merchant Ivory” has become all but synonymous. But although this approach has proven quite suitably matched to the reserved and repressed manner of Victorian-era shenanigans, it hasn’t worked nearly as well in Ivory’s efforts at contemporary drama – A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, Surviving Picasso, and Slaves of New York, for instance – where a little harder tug at the heartstrings could have made for a more compelling movie.

So it is with Le Divorce, which presents an array of comedic and dramatic scenarios but fails to elicit any real pathos. That it nevertheless succeeds, on the strength of its sly humor and keen observation, is less a testament to Ivory’s cinematic ingenuity than it is to its source material and, more importantly, the irresistible allure of the City of Light.

We experience the incredible city, with its mystifying system of manners and mores, through the bright and naïve eyes of Isabel (Kate Hudson), an aimless but winsome young woman who, upon arrival in Paris to stay with her poetess sister Roxanne (Naomi Watts), fancies herself quite the young sophisticate. It takes no time at all, however, for Isabel’s delusions of urbanity to shatter; Roxy’s philandering French husband, Charles-Henri (Melvil Poupaud), abandons Roxy and their toddler daughter just as Isabel arrives for her visit, setting in motion a complex and far-reaching familial battle in which the opposing American and French views of infidelity, morality, and propriety become increasingly apparent.

The central conflict in Le Divorce lies, as it does in so many matters of real-life matrimonial dissolution, in the division of property. Here, the dispute is over a painting in Roxy’s possession, a family heirloom that may or may not be an unknown work by La Tour worth millions. As extended families converge to engage in the fracas, Isabel begins a discreet and ill-timed affair with the much-older uncle of Roxy’s estranged husband, setting the stage for an amusing journey of self-discovery.

With her perpetually twinkling eyes and blinding grin, Hudson is terrific as the fresh-faced and faux pas-prone Isabel. In general, the supporting roles are splendidly cast as well, particularly Stockard Channing as Isabel and Roxy’s doting mother, Thomas Lennon as their obsessively fiscal-minded brother, and Glenn Close as a bookish expatriate. One notable exception is Matthew Modine, who chews the exquisite Paris scenery as one might devour a particularly tasty dessert in his role as a disturbed would-be assassin.

Despite obvious efforts to establish an element of intrigue, the film fails to generate any real suspense as it twists and turns toward a conclusion. More than anything, it succeeds as a glorious travelogue of Paris. Here, lovingly shot, are the striped, accordion-style barricades that surround countless construction sites. There, the hopelessly narrow sidewalks, filled to bursting with impossibly elegant pedestrians. One montage revels in the multitudinous ways a French woman can wear a scarf. Another celebrates the artistry of a cuisine almost too beautiful to eat. Ivory may not be the best at packing an emotional punch, but he definitely knows how to give us the ooh-la-la.

(Appeared in Gay City News)