Film review: Merchant-Ivory's 'Le Divorce'

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent  |  Aug. 7, 2003 at 9:54 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Aug. 7 (UPI) -- Merchant & Ivory, the producer-director duo whose glossy period pieces like "Howards End" gave Masterpiece Theatre an undeservedly bad name, are back with "Le Divorce." In the wake of co-star Kate Hudson's hit "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days," Fox Searchlight is marketing this limited release film as a Parisian romantic comedy, but it's lacking in both amour and comédie.

Still, despite its complicated plot's failure to gain traction emotionally, "Le Divorce" is elegant looking, mostly well-acted, and informative about the differences between contemporary American and French culture. "Le Divorce" is a bit of a mess, but it does provide a 2-D facsimile of going to lunch at a $150 per head Paris restaurant and listening to French and American in-laws discuss their tangled affairs.

Hudson plays a college dropout from a wealthy Santa Barbara family who arrives in Paris to visit her sister, a pregnant poet, just as her French husband, a handsome but childish painter, is abandoning her and their five-year-old girl.

As the wronged wife, beautiful Naomi Watts (who became a star in David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive") is effective, as she does a vivid impression of a soccer mom (mère de football?) trying to hold her family together. Yet, neither Watts nor the script try to persuade us she's a professional poet.

Real poets require self-centeredness to do their job. Co-writers James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala use "poet" to imply "passionate," but that's a cheesy shortcut. Wordsworth defined poetry as "emotion recollected in tranquility," and writing poetry requires far more tranquility than a full time mom enjoys.

Instead of asking Hudson to babysit while she writes, Watts finds her a job filing the papers of a famous American feminist writer (played by Glenn Close sporting a Susan Sontag-style hairdo that's even scarier than Cruella De Vil's). Hudson starts an affair with Close's young leftist gofer, who is angry at America for addicting him to "The Simpsons."

The message of "Le Divorce" is that, despite the Francophobia of America's conservative press, France is far more conservative than the United States. The French resent America's churning dynamism because they feel, with some justification, that they've already figured out the best way to live. Still, to use "The Simpsons" -- the supreme pop culture production of our time -- as a symbol of American trashiness just shows that Merchant, Ivory, and Jhabvala have aged into fuddy-duddyhood.

The straying husband returns to demand an immediate divorce so that he can marry his new love, who appears to be a happy idiot. He warns Watts not to abscond with any of their joint property, especially a painting that was bought by her grandfather and might prove to be by the French old master Georges de La Tour.

A rugged but sensitive lawyer advises Watts on the many ways French marital law can snag an American who thinks of marriage as a bond between two individuals rather than a contract between two families.

French propriety requires that each Sunday the sisters must still lunch with their high bourgeois in-laws at the chateau of the imperious mother-in-law, played impressively by Leslie Caron, the star of 1958's "Gigi." Poor Watts is expected to make witty conversation about anything other than the emotions roiling her with her uncle-in-law Edgar, a suave rightist politician who lives apart from his wife, the better to help him thank heaven for leetle girlz.

While all the in-laws believe Watts' husband is being a lout, for some reason, nobody offers him the time-honored French advice that affairs need not cause divorce as long as the legitimacy of the heirs is assured. (In reality, the French divorce rate has grown so fast recently that it's now not far below the American rate. Still, in every other regard, the movie nostalgically portrays French mores as not having changed since Caron danced with Gene Kelly in "An American in Paris.")

Hudson, a cheerful and shallow girl, can't concentrate on her sister's troubles because France's old-fashioned sex roles excite her erotically. After seeing the 55-year-old Uncle Edgar on TV discourse grandly (if incomprehensibly), she instantly accepts his offer to be his mistress, then hurries to a lingerie boutique to acquire the traditional attire for her now role.

In return, Uncle Edgar gives her the $18,000 red alligator skin purse that he buys all his new mistresses -- even, decades ago, Close. Being a dopey American, however, Hudson lugs it everywhere, revealing the liaison to Edgar's family, who may use it against her poor sister.

At this point, the plot has developed considerable momentum toward becoming a Henry James-style tragedy where American naiveté runs afoul of inscrutable continental marital rules. But, then, blooey, the storyline flies off into mannered absurdity, complete with a hostage-taking on top of the Eiffel Tower.

Rated PG-13 for sexual themes.

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