American Isabel Walker (Kate Hudson, "Alex & Emma") arrives at her pregnant sister Roxy's (Naomi Watts, "The Ring") Paris apartment just as Roxy's husband Charles-Henri (Melvil Poupaud, "Time Regained") is leaving her. While Roxy deals with her marital breakup the Walker and de Persand families strategize over property including a possible de la Tour painting of Saint Ursula Roxy borrowed from her family. Isabel, meanwhile has begun an affair with the dashing married brother (Thierry Lhermitte, "And Now...Ladies and Gentlemen," "The Closet") of her sister's mother-in-law (Leslie Caron, "Funny Bones") in "Le Divorce."
The Merchant/Ivory team has had only one critical success ("A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries") when they attempt modern adaptations and "Le Divorce" does not break their streak. Despite the whimsy of a red Hermes Kelly bag that floats above the city of Paris, Ivory takes his material too literally. A director such as Pedro Almadovar may have been able to find the absurdist humor in this familial/cultural clash and balance the darkness of a suicide attempt with light romantic comedy. Still, there are some fine performances and French/American cultural baiting that keep "Le Divorce" from being a total failure.
Charles-Henri leaves his wife and their young daughter abruptly with only a promise to call. As Roxy mopes, Isabel strikes out on adventures. Through Roxy, a poetess, she's procured a job with famous American authoress Oliva Pace (Glenn Close, "102 Dalmatians") and quickly tumbles into bed with Olivia's handyman Yves (Romain Duris, "L'Auberge Espagnole"). Roxy keeps the tradition of Sunday dinner in the country chez matriarch Suzanne de Persand (Caron) where Isabel meets Uncle Edgar. His jesting about the sexual exploits of a married American senator enrages Roxy, but when Isabel later sees Edgar on TV she finds him sexy and impulsively calls him. Meanwhile the deranged American husband (Matthew Modine, "Any Given Sunday") of the Russian woman Charles-Henri is dallying with begins to stalk Roxy who is also being courted by her divorce lawyer Maitre Bertram (Jean-Marc Barr, "Dancer in the Dark"). Sacre bleu! As if this weren't enough drama, the de Persand's greed over a Walker family heirloom has brought the rest of the family, mother Margreeve (Stockard Channing, "The Business of Strangers"), father Chester (Sam Waterston, "Serial Mom") and brother Roger (Thomas Lennon, "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days") to France. Both families learn of the Isabel-Edgar affair when Suzanne recognizes his customary new mistress gift of an expensive red Hermes pocketbook just as Isabel discovers Oliva was a former lover of Edgar's when she finds old photographs of the two.
"Le Divorce" is as shallow as sister Isabel, with Hudson floating through the film with little to add but a pretty face and bright smile while a low-wattage Watts is enveloped in teary gloom. Only Thomas Lennon adds any punch for the young generation, his overt Americanness ('Waiter, can we have some eau?') brazenly standing out amidst Parisian chic. It's the older generation that delights here, with the sexy, urbane Lhermitte suavely picking up ('Now we need to decide if you are going to become my mistress' he informs Isabel at their first luncheon) then letting down another in a long line of mistresses. He's terrific paired with ex-lover Close verbally sparring at the Hermes scarf counter where each has come to purchase a scarf for the some young girl for different reasons. Close crackles as a sophisticated Midwestern writer with her toned down Cruella salt and pepper locks. Caron embodies regal entitlement as the manipulative matriarch, her face positively contracting in distaste when a luncheon cheese fails to meet her standards. Stephen Fry ("Gosford Park") and Bebe Neuwirth ("Tadpole") are fine additions in small roles as art experts.
The de Persand family has accepted Edgar's dalliances as normal for years but are scandalized when he involves himself with 'an American,' especially one from a family that they are loath to admit they have wronged. Money is a dubious topic, but talons come out when Suzanne decides they have rights to the Walker's family painting because 'It is a French painting after all.' The conflict is perfectly summed up by a policewoman after one of the philanderers is murdered - 'There are no crimes of passion in America' - they only kill for drugs or money.'
Cinematographer Pierre Lhomme ("Jefferson in Paris") paints a glorious City of Lights from the opening shot of artichokes artfully displayed in a Parisian produce shop to a dizzying trip up the Eiffel Tower for the film's climax.
"Le Divorce" is like the most extreme edges of the nouvelle cuisine movement of the 80's - disparate ingredients may look wonderful on the plate, but the end result is not very satisfying.
Robin did not see this film.
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