Le Divorce (2003) **1/2
Directed by James Ivory. Written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Mr. Ivory, based on the novel by Diane Johnson. Photography, Pierre Lhomme. Editing, John David Allen. Production design, Frédéric Bénard. Music, Richard Robbins. Produced by Ismail Merchant and Michael Schiffer. Cast Alphabetically : Leslie Caron (Suzanne de Persand), Stockard Channing (Margeeve Walker), Glenn Close (Olivia Pace), Romain Duris (Yves), Stephen Fry (Piers Janely), Kate Hudson (Isabel Walker), Thierry Lhermitte (Edgar Cosset), Matthew Modine (Tellman), Bebe Neuwirth (Julia Manchevering), Sam Waterston (Chester Walker), Naomi Watts (Roxanne de Persand) and Melvil Poupaud (Charles-Henri de Persand). A Fox Searchlight release. 115 minutes. PG-13.
No matter how some current propaganda puts down the French, the "Vive la difference" notion endures. For example, until relatively recent times, American wines were something of a joke, but today, the best of them give French wines a run for their money. Even so the French ones have certainly not been dethroned. Or take food. The best of American cuisine is in fact French cuisine. Ditto for perfumes, fashions, many luxury items, and so on. Globalisation reigns.
As for people, while in the U.S.A the expression "Latin Lover" is now a thing of the past, it is a fact that "I am French" elicits more attention than any other nationality.
The kernel of "Le Divorce" is "Frenchiness." Nice-looking American Isabel (Kate Hudson) comes to Paris to visit her sister Roxanne (Naomi Watts) a poet married to French artist Charles-Henri de Persand (Melvil Poupaud). The couple have a child and are expecting another. Oddly (it's only a movie after all), just as Isabel enters the couple's home, Charles-Henri is leaving it abruptly. He has fallen for a Russian woman who is married to an American (Mathew Modine.)
Melvil (there's a gag somewhere in that name for informed cinephiles) is the son of patrician Suzanne de Persand (nicely played by Leslie Caron who has been married four times.) The prefix "de" may indicate French nobility, but contrary to common belief, it ain't necessarily so. (Think Charles de Gaulle.) Madame de Persand may simply be "High" or even "Moneyed" Bourgeoisie. Her country house is Gallic Martha Stewart.
The movie is nicely edited and photographed. It follows a number of strands, with the main focus on Isabel. She is the American Abroad, familiar from books and movies. In the course of human events, one of the first Frenchmen Isabel meets is a vaguely Bohemian (read Post-Hippie) artist with vague political "engagement." Cut to their being in bed together. But he is only the hors d'oeuvre to the main (inter) course, Edgar Cosset (the very popular Thierry Lhermitte.) The latter is a vaguely married and vaguely right-wing politician (which means money,) and, most importantly, a champion womanizer. Edgar, a Casanova or a Don Juan (minus a Figaro or Leporello,) is the Madame de Persand's brother , therefore the uncle of Charles-Henri. It's All in the Family. Curiously (and improbably), Edgar seems to start all his affairs with the gift of the same Hermes handbag ($6,000 or so) of red crocodile (whatever that is), and to finish said affairs with a very pricey scarf.
In the source novel, Edgar was in his 70s. Mercifully, in the movie this becomes 50s. Still, that's two-and-a-half times the age of 19-year old Isabel. In which carnal techniques he initiates the girl from Santa Barbara is mercifully unclear, but he does introduce her to "haute couture" including underwear, and to mouth-watering, splendidly served cuisine. All this does not prevent her from sleeping also with the younger fellow. Ah, France, where nothing is taken too seriously. It's a far cry from "Casablanca's" "we'll always have Paris."
There are amusing side-dishes in the story, mainly Roxy's dim view of divorce, attempted settlements by the lady and husband Melvil, etc. and, notably, a subplot concerning a putative painting worth millions by Georges de la Tour (1593-1652) that's in the Roxy and Isabel family of Californians. They come to Paris and enjoy it, including an auction, to the hilt.
The main problem in this film is that no character gets developed.The two sisters - and for that matter, most of the Parisians, are not really interesting - except, in a few fleeting moments, the aged concierge lady of Roxy's apartment building. Roxy, a poet, lacks personality. The poem she reads at a gathering of literati does not exactly bring down the walls of Jericho-on-Seine. Melvil Poupaud as Charles-Henri is even more pallid. (He was the lead in that wonderful movie by Eric Rohmer "A Tale of Summer.") The close-to-the-finale section with Matthew Modine on the Eiffel Tower breaks the dominant tones and many sophisticated moods. Otherwise, "Frenchiness" is pleasantly detailed although the film often has a tempo of "escargots" (snails.)
Things go better with Glen Close as another American expatriate, a wise, sophisticated, esteemed writer, and long ago one of Edgar's mistresses. Leslie Caron's miscellaneous disapprovals are nicely and economically stated.
I can hear its French audiences saying "Pas mal. Mais plutot chiant" i.e. "Pretty good. But it tends to drag."