review by Dan
Lybarger, 8 August 2003
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
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
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