The further away director James Ivory and producer Ishmael Merchant get from their trademarked aristocratic period pieces, like "A Room With a View" and "Howard's End," the worse their movies get. At this point, I fully expect their next film to be a futuristic sci-fi chamber drama, because that's the only way they could sink lower than "Le Divorce."
A pseudo-sophisticated sexual roundelay full of trivial characters so selfish it's a chore to spend two hours with them, this is the story of two American sisters suffering the slings and arrows of French male infidelity -- but even these women served up as the movie's heroines are worthy of very little sympathy.
Naomi Watts plays Roxy, an insecure doormat of a pregnant poetess in present-day Paris, who is in shock at the departure of Charles-Henri (Melvil Poupaud), her philandering husband who has taken up with a married Russian dancer. Just arrived from Santa Monica, her supposedly self-possessed younger sibling Isabel (Kate Hudson) is appalled at Roxy's plight -- although that doesn't stop the little hypocrite from becoming the throwaway mistress of the cheater's Uncle Edgar (Thierry Lhermitte), an arrogant right-wing politician.
Arrogance and condescension are traits of all French people, if the stock characters of "Le Divorce" are to be believed. The rich family with which these sisters are intertwined circles its wagons with cruel distain when Roxy refuses to accept a divorce, and soon the story begins to revolve around the battle for a valuable painting Roxy brought to the marriage.
Meant to be a jaunty, Altman-esque ensemble dramedy, "Le Divorce" includes a cavalcade of French and American stars playing peripheral characters. Leslie Caron is the family's uppity matriarch, Glenn Close is an American ex-pat writer-activist, Jean-Marc Barr is Roxy's handsome, attentive and rebound-convenient attorney, Sam Waterston and Stockard Channing are the girls' parents, Stephen Fry and Bebe Neuwirth are art appraisers, and Matthew Modine is the Russian dancer's insanely jealous husband who inexplicably harasses poor Roxy.
They all come and go without much consequence while Isabel continues her tasteless dalliance (even though her attraction and interest in 50-something Edgar is never convincing, justified or adequately explained). At the same time, Roxy lives a life of increasingly insipidly metaphorical irony (at a poetry reading she chokes back tears while reciting Anne Bradstreet's "To My Dear and Loving Husband") until her psychological state borders on suicidal.
Watts' intuitively emotional performance is the movie's single source of sincerity, but her depth is paradoxically drowned in the movie's overwhelming shallowness, personified by Isabel, who shows a repulsive insensitivity. Not only does she carry on an adulterous affair -- with a soon-to-be ex-in-law, no less -- under the nose of her brokenhearted sister, but she willingly accepts the role of Edgar's sexual plaything, then angles for audience commiseration when she's later dumped. A more skilled actress might have been able to pull this off, but the frothy Hudson just makes the girl seem like a flake.
As co-writer (with frequent collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) and director, Ivory gives no indication that he's aware of Isabel's superficiality, which undermines the entire picture. But he does create a crisp, vividly transporting Parisian atmosphere full of flight, frivolity and fashion (Isabel has the worst taste in clothing, handbags and hairstyles of any movie heroine since the 1980s) -- which I gather from the press kit is what drew him to Diane Johnson's novel on which the film is based.
Yet as the story evolves -- somehow becoming more serious and more inconsequential at the same time -- that palpable taste of France gives way to contrived cinematic tourism (a far-fetched climax atop the Eiffel Tower). "Le Divorce" then limps to a pandering, slapdash finale of out-of-the-blue narration and shorthanded altruism designed to imply that commendable betterment has finally come to its self-absorbed characters. Too little, too late, I say.
Run time: 117 mins
In Theaters: Friday 29th August 2003
Box Office USA: $8.9M
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox Film
Production compaines: Fox Searchlight
Contactmusic.com: 1.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 37%
Fresh: 51 Rotten: 87
IMDB: 4.9 / 10
Director: James Ivory
Starring: Kate Hudson as Isabel Walker, Naomi Watts as Roxeanne de Persand, Melvil Poupaud as Charles-Henri de Persand, Catherine Samie as Catherine Samie, Leslie Caron as Suzanne de Persand, Thierry Lhermitte as Edgar Cosset, Sam Waterston as Chester Walker, Thomas Lennon as Roger Walker, Romain Duris as Yves, Esmée Buchet-Deàk as Gennie de Persand, Samuel Labarthe as Antoine de Persand, Nathalie Richard as Charlotte de Persand, Glenn Close as Olivia Pace, Marianne Borgo as Ballet Mistress, Rona Hartner as Magda Tellman, Bebe Neuwirth as Julia Manchevering
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