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Le Divorce (PG-13)
Fox Searchlight
Official Site
Director: James Ivory
Producers: Ismail Merchant, Michael Schiffer
Written by: James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala; based on the novel by Diane Johnson
Cast: Kate Hudson, Naomi Watts, Leslie Caron, Sam Waterston, Stockard Channing, Matthew Modine, Bebe Neuwirth, Melvil Poupaud, Thierry Lhermitte

Rating: out of 5

Isabel Walker (Hudson) comes to Paris to assist her five-months-pregnant sister Roxeanne (Watts), but her timing is awkward, to say the least. Just as she steps out of the cab at her sisterís doorstep, Roxyís husband Charles-Henri (Poupaud) heads out the door shortly after announcing that he is leaving his wife and their five-year-old daughter, presumably for another woman, though he wonít admit as much. He later informs Roxeanne he wants ďle divorce.Ē

What should be a relatively civil French-style separation rapidly degenerates, in part because Roxie is in possession of an original Henri Fantin-Latour featuring the image of St. Ursula. But what to do with this painting has now suddenly become a complicated affair. Here, Bebe Neuwirth has a small and underused performance as an art historian who desperately wants the painting for the Getty Museum. Yet Roxeanneís French in-laws, headed by the sanctimonious matriarch Suzanne (Caron) insist that, despite the reprehensible actions of her son, division of all assets down the middle is most appropriate and she cautions Roxeanne not to remove the painting from France. But appropriate actions in this extended family are surely lacking on all sides, with the exception of Roxeanne herself. As saintly as the figure in the much-coveted painting she possesses, Roxeanne now finds herself in an even more difficult situation. With her gravid belly serving as a constant reminder she is carrying a child conceived by an unfaithful husband, she must now also demonstrate virtuous patience when her cash-conscious in-laws begin to take inventory of her household objects. She could probably tell her in-laws to go take a hike, but the actions of her sister Isabel makes matters more complicated.† Isabel does well by promptly finding work helping organize the scholarly papers of a literary academic (played by Glenn Close) but she also begins a dual affair with two French opposites. Her casual affair with a sexy, disheveled peasant is hardly a problem, but soon thereafter Isabel also begins an affair as the kept mistress of the married Edgar (Lhermitte), Charles Henriís older and very distinguished uncle, who showers his paramour with expensive gifts and dinners at classy French restaurants.

The set-up for the double standard about sex and cheating is obvious, and yet the universal nature of the subject matter set this time in modern-day France seems to leave the Merchant-Ivory team perplexed. Perhaps without the period piece costumes and formal dialogue of Victorians, the dynamic duo is not as sure of themselves. As a result, no one in Le Divorce seems to experience any sort of an epiphany or realistic comeuppance.

Le Divorce is something of a let down in other ways as well. Heartache and moral quandaries of the leisurely rich may make for enchanting subject matter when the characters come from a Henry James novel, but when the same formula is attempted in contemporary continental Europe, the fascination just isnít there.† This is not to suggest the problems faced by the wealthy Walker family arenít serious or even entertaining. Take poor Roxeanne, for instance. In addition to her marital woes, she is also being stalked by an emotionally troubled man (played by Matthew Modine), who, it later turns out, is also the victim of Charles Henriís infidelities.† And when the sistersí parents (Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston) arrive to help their troubled daughters, the drama of how to deal with the Latour painting only intensifies.

But inevitably itís difficult to relate to people who squabble about how much to tip the French waiter after their lunch tab comes to $900. And itís certainly hard to feel too much empathy for characters who seem to live on no budgets and are about to come into even greater sums of money if only they can find out how best to rid themselves of their Latour.

Le Divorce is also, I suspect, an awkward translation of Diane Johnsonís novel of the same name. Almost two hours long, the film is enjoyable and evenly paced, as pleasant as an afternoon walk through a cobbled Paris street in a gentle rain. That is, until the very end, when suddenly important plot changes are rapidly shoved together in the last 15 minutes of the film. The result is a jarring, rushed ending that seems sped up compared to the relaxed pace of the film. As a result, Le Divorce is nearly impossible to categorize. Is it a romantic comedy? Is it a black comedy? At times itís quirky and sweet in its treatment of sex and romance. At other times, there are sharp and not so subtle barbs concerning the cultural chasm that inexplicably separates Americans from the French.† And then suddenly when it seems Le Divorce is a gentle comedy it veers sharply into a rather dark area of murder and crimes of passion. Leaving the theater, I could only imagine the nightmare video store clerks will have when trying to figure out what genre this film ultimately falls into. Despite these flaws, Le Divorce has a certain charm to it. Though the ďstar studded castĒ is a bit overwhelming, Hudson and Watts give watchable performances as young Americans in love in Paris, and however itís classified or categorized, Le Divorce ultimately deserves a place as recommended viewing

óNancy Semin


hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

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