Directed by James Ivory. Starring Naomi Watts, Kate Hudson, Leslie Caron, Stockard Channing, Glenn Close, Thierry Lhermitte, Sam Waterston, Matthew Modine, Romain Duris, Thomas Lennon. (2003, PG-13, 115 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Aug. 22, 2003
Adapted from Diane Johnson’s breezy 1998 bestseller of the same name, Le Divorce comes from Team Merchant Ivory, the filmmaking trio – including American director James Ivory, Indian producer Ismail Merchant, and German screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala – responsible for such veddy English corseted dramas as The Golden Bowl and the masterful A Room With a View. I mention their nationalities only in that, with so much globetrotting, you’d think the three could bring some insight to a comedy of cultural differences. No such luck. Not only do they render dull the clash between two Americans in Paris and all those staring-down-their-noses natives, the filmmakers also manage to make one of the most photogenic cities on the planet – oui, gay Paree! – into a colorless, contourless place. Johnson’s novel was by no means great literature, but the thing did have spunk, a spunk sorely lost in the translation to film. Hudson stars as Isabel Walker, a twentysomething Santa Barbara woman who flies to Paris for an extended stay with her pregnant sister, a poet named Roxeanne (a bland Naomi Watts). The trouble begins when Roxeanne’s French husband abandons her for another woman; the domestic debacle goes from bad to worse when Roxeanne is subjected to an arcane, biased French legal system that threatens to strip her of her rights to her children, her property, and her name. Isabel, meanwhile, begins an illicit affair with "Oncle Edgar," Roxeanne’s very married uncle-in-law who’s twice Izzy’s age. It’s worth noting that in the book Oncle Edgar was in his 70s; I think we’re all grateful to be spared the sight of quintessential California girl Kate Hudson futzing around with a saggy, white-bearded septuagenarian … or maybe not. That sight at least would have prompted a reaction with teeth (as is, the only reaction with teeth I had was the long and indelicate yawn I nursed for two hours). There are flashes of wit and flair here, including two stylish sequences detailing the French obsession with food and scarves, but they are but brief respites from the film’s near-pathological drear. Billed as a romantic comedy, there’s not much of either here, unless you count suicide, abortion, abandonment, and obsession as dead sexy fun. It might have been, had the filmmakers struck the right note between black humor and benign eccentricity; Diane Johnson did (I will resist the urge to stick my tongue out and "nyah, nyah" Merchant Ivory). Le Divorce is a competently put-together film, with the occasional laugh – almost all care of the wonderful Thomas Lennon, in a bit part as Roxy and Isabel’s boorish brother – and the occasional knee-buckling that can’t help but happen in the face of a city made up, it seems, entirely of bedroom eyes. Paris continues to seduce. Le Divorce proves easier to resist.