Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:57 - Released 8/29/03

The latest from the famous partnership of Indian-born producer Ismail Merchant and American director James Ivory (not to mention their longtime screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala), Le Divorce again showcases the notable abilities of the creative team responsible for such acclaimed period pieces as A Room With A View, Howard’s End, and The Remains Of The Day. While Le Divorce does not attain the excellence of those films’ interpersonal relationships, it certainly features an intelligent story complemented by fine work by a dizzying array of gifted actors, a combination which has become a standard prerequisite for Merchant/Ivory productions. Starring Naomi Watts, who showed us her impressive ability in David Lynch’s freaky 2001 film Mulholland Drive, and the effervescent Kate Hudson, it tells the story (based on the bestselling book by Diane Johnson) of two American sisters who learn separate lessons about the price of love in present-day Paris, but it also functions as a sort of comparative study on the differing mores of French vs. American society. While it contains occasional textual flaws, like some unnecessarily obvious expository dialogue, and occasional acting flaws, like people trying to find a way to deliver said dialogue convincingly, and it strains for a long time to find likable characters, this is for the most part a well-performed and engaging film, especially compared to what else is out there right now.

When Isabel Walker (Hudson) sets off from her home in California for a prolonged visit to her pregnant sister Roxanne de Persand (Watts) in Paris, she doesn’t realize that she is walking into the middle of a marital breakup. Even as she arrives, Roxanne’s French husband Charles-Henri (Melvil Poupaud) is walking out the door, leaving his wife, their young daughter Gennie (Esmée Buchet-Deak), and the unborn baby Roxanne is carrying. Although the situation saddens Isabel, she can’t help but enjoy the Parisian lifestyle, and she soon gets a job organizing the literary papers of noted liberal American poet and women’s activist Olivia Pace (Glenn Close), who is donating them to the University of Tulsa. Meanwhile she falls in love with a scruffy Frenchman named Yves (Romain Duris), who also works for Pace. Her affair with him is put on hold, however, when she becomes attracted to a wealthy diplomat named Edgar Cossett (Thierry Lhermitte), a politician with the sexual appetites of Bill Clinton and the politics of George W. Bush. But better looking than either. And he’s also the brother of Charles-Henri’s propriety-obsessed mother (Leslie Caron).

Isabel’s romantic pursuits could be considered the typical adventures of any young woman in Paris, but trouble starts when Roxanne’s in-law family seeks legal counsel regarding the separation of property between her and Charles-Henri. The dispute particularly concerns a beautiful painting of Ste. Ursula, the patron saint of young girls, which may or may not have been painted by the famous 17th-century French artist Georges de La Tour (and therefore could be worth millions). The painting, given to Charles-Henri and Roxanne as a wedding present by her parents (Sam Waterston, Stockard Channing), was a Walker family heirloom for generations, but since it was a gift to the couple, his family claims joint ownership. Soon all the above family members and others join together for a strained summit meeting on the situation, culminating in an ill-fated trip to the Eiffel Tower.

Although this film has its lighthearted moments, it probably shouldn’t be seen by anyone going through a painful separation, as it seems mostly to be about people being careless with each other’s hearts. Few of the characters are really likable people, as most are either obsessed with money, appearances, or themselves, and therefore it is somewhat difficult to bond with any of them. However, the beautiful scenery of Paris is presented with the traditional style of a Merchant/Ivory production, and although this is not a period piece, it is clear the wardrobe department was doing its best to provide clothing to counteract the character problem, offering a wide variety of garments showcasing the versatility of Hudson’s fabulous derrière. Hudson is of course her cute, bubbly self, and even when her butt is offscreen, she carries herself admirably and reaches some emotional colors which betray her underrated talent for real acting. Watts is similarly effective; although her character is less prominent and she spends most of the film being hurt, angry, and/or weepy, while growing in size all the time, she is able to achieve a subtlety of behavior that can be quite arrestingly real.

The film’s conclusion turns out much more happily than most divorces probably do, but, well, Paris is the city of light, isn’t it? ****

Copyright 2003 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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