Who knew a Merchant Ivory film could be so much fun? Director and co-writer James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant, best known for their stuffy, flawlessly appointed period pieces, offer their take on the French farce with “Le Divorce.”
The film is a blast with a glorious cast - even though it loses its way a bit toward the end.
Based on the novel by Diane Johnson, “Le Divorce” stars Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts as Isabel and Roxeanne, American sisters in Paris. Equally gorgeous and blond, with a seemingly genuine affection for each other, it’s easy to believe they’re siblings.
Roxy is a poet, wife and mother with a second baby on the way. Isabel has flown in from California to visit her older sister - just as Roxy’s French artist husband, Charles-Henri (Melvil Poupaud), is leaving to be with another woman.
Isabel tries to support her sister, especially as Roxy wrestles with divorce laws that favor the French. A painting Roxy brought with her to Paris, which may be worth millions of dollars, becomes a key source of conflict.
But Isabel ends up having a dalliance of her own with Edgar (Thierry Lhermitte), a French diplomat who’s much older, married with twins - and just happens to be Charles-Henri’s uncle.
It’s easy to see why she’d be attracted to Edgar; his intellect and sophistication make him eminently sexy. And he has impeccable taste; a red crocodile Hermes purse he sends her at the beginning of their relationship becomes a scarlet symbol that older women recognize throughout the film, including Charles-Henri’s wealthy, controlling mother (a perfectly cast Leslie Caron).
Isabel’s affair inspires her transformation from innocent California girl to international fashionista, and it’s a joy to watch. Hudson has a fabulous figure and can wear anything, and as in the best Merchant Ivory films - “A Room With a View,” “The Remains of the Day,” “Howards End” - clothes are crucial here, too.
Her affair, and Charles-Henri’s, also cause the sisters to question their American sense of idealism while immersed in French culture. Spending time with Olivia (Glenn Close), a writer and American expat, further opens Isabel’s eyes to how sheltered she’d been back in Santa Barbara with her parents (Sam Waterston and Stockard Channing, who play a subtler version of the ugly American).
The cultural clashes in “Le Divorce” couldn’t be more timely, given France’s vocal opposition to the American-led war in Iraq. The film’s present-day setting (a rarity for Ivory and his frequent writing partner, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) also gives it a tangible sense of realism.
That’s why is makes absolutely no sense when Matthew Modine shows up as the jealous husband of Charles-Henri’s mistress. The way he stalks Roxy and desperately waves a gun at the top of the Eiffel Tower, I half expected Bruce Willis to show up and negotiate with him.
Modine’s character belongs in another movie, but his presence provides a great line. At a bookstore where Roxy is reading her poems, Isabel asks him, “Are you an admirer of American poetry?”
“No,” he replies evenly. “I’m an entertainment lawyer.”