Le Divorce
review by Dan Lybarger, 8 August 2003

Le Divorce has scenic locales, sex, cultural feuds and raw jealousy and features a first-rate cast. Somehow none of these themes or assets helps shake a nagging indifference that accompanies this tale. Despite being made by the venerable Merchant-Ivory team (director James Ivory, writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and producer Ismail Merchant), Le Divorce flirts with substance and passion but winds up offering only a tease.

Taken from Diane Johnson’s novel, Le Divorce follows a young Californian named Isabel Walker (Kate Hudson) who’s visiting her older sister in the City of Lights. Right after getting off the plane, Isabel discovers that Roxy (Naomi Watts) doesn’t have such an enviable existence. Roxy’s husband Charles-Henri (Melvil Poupaud) has abandoned her even though they’ve had one child together and she’s pregnant with another. The humiliation is compounded by the fact that she regularly dines in the country with Charles-Henri’s outwardly sympathetic but cold-hearted mother (Leslie Caron).  If this situation weren’t bad enough, Roxy’s family owns a painting that has been hanging on the soon-to-be-divorced couple’s wall, and both families are thinking of selling it. The Walker family heirloom might even be the work of a master, which means the French are leery of having it winding up in an American museum.

Rather than provide comfort to her sister, Isabel ends up complicating matters by starting an affair with Charles-Henri’s Uncle Edgar (Thierry Lhermitte). Isabel doesn’t agree with Edgar’s right-wing diatribes on TV. She doesn’t really understand what he’s saying in the first place and doesn’t make much of an effort to learn. Apparently the mere conviction in his voice makes her buy fancy lingerie and publicly wear gifts that advertise her as the older man’s mistress. No one ever said that love made sense (H.L. Mencken once dismissed it as “the triumph of imagination over intelligence”). What’s disconcerting about Le Divorce is that none of the people hopping in and out of bed are really that interesting.

While Lhermitte injects Edgar with a little bit of charm, Isabel seems to have taken up the affair out of boredom. There seems to be little emotional pull and certainly no sense in hooking up with this guy (why would she hook up with someone whose family clearly has little regard for hers). Charles-Henri’s involvement with a shallow Russian expatriate and the effect it has on her insanely jealous husband (Matthew Modine) generates even more malaise.

All of this detracts from the observations that make Le Divorce potentially interesting. In movies like Howard’s End and The Remains of the Day, Merchant-Ivory have specialized in presenting situations where seemingly civil and refined people reveal they are as conniving as gangsters. The most interesting moments in the new film come as the families and the appraisers start haggling over the real value of the painting. Because revealing the actual cost could hurt either family financially and museums don’t want to pay higher prices than they have to, nobody is going to be honest about the situation. The cultural feuds only make things uglier.

In the film, the French seem delicate in handling property disputes but bluntly propose extramarital affairs. And the people of both nations seem more interested in how their elected officials behave in bed than in how they vote. Sadly, most of these points are lost because the story lacks focus, and the ending is too convenient to be credible.

It’s comforting to see veteran performers like Glenn Close and Leslie Caron are still working, but it would have been better if Merchant-Ivory had given them something to do.

Directed by:
James Ivory

Naomi Watts
Kate Hudson
Leslie Caron
Melvil Poupaud
Thierry Lhermitte
Samuel Labarthe
Stockard Channing
Thomas Lennon
Sam Waterston
Glenn Close
Romain Duris
Jean-Marc Barr
Bebe Neuwirth
Stephen Fry
Matthew Modine
Rona Hartner
Nathalie Richard
Jean-Marie Lhomme
Catherine Samie
Samuel Gruen
Marianne Borgo
Elie Axas
Humbert Balsan
Arnaud Borrel
Françoise Brion
Philip Tabor
Alan Ewing
Daniel Mesguich
Hélène Surgère
Fannie Brett
Pierre Aussedat
Anne Canovas
Marc Tissot
Christian Erickson
Judith Burnett
Marie-Christine Adam
Joaquina Belaunde
Valerie Lang
Christophe Vienne
Emmanuel Broche
Graziella Delerm
Jean-Pierre Bouvier
Laurent Schwaar

Written by:
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
James Ivory

PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate
for children under 13.







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