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By Mark Sells | September 5, 2003

“Le Divorce” is an exercise in etiquette, a scrumptious little film that has good intentions despite a general lack of direction. Comprised of a series of vignettes, the film focuses on the culture clash between American and French attitudes, behaviors, and mannerisms. Like many films by the team of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, it amuses us by contrasting the differences between countries using a variety of topics: politics, fashion, food, lifestyles, and sex. Each subject is treated delicately, with honesty and capriciousness. But as a whole, the film comes off uncoordinated and jumbled.
The film opens with the arrival of Isabel Walker, an American in Paris, on a pleasure trip to see her older sister, Roxeanne, an accomplished poet living in the City of Lights. Roxeanne and her husband, Charles-Henri, have a little girl and are expecting another child in the next few months. However, just before Isabel’s arrival, things turn sour as Charles-Henri leaves unexpectedly and unsympathetically for a younger, Russian woman. After becoming reacquainted with her sister, Roxy breaks the news to Isabel and gradually to her in-laws and parents.
While at the in-law’s chateau, Isabel becomes enamored with a much older French diplomat, Edgar Cosset, who happens to be Charles-Henri’s uncle. The two become infatuated and Isabel quickly becomes Edgar’s mistress, a secret that is not easily kept out of the limelight. As Isabel and Edgar flirt and fling, Roxeanne quickly learns the rules of French divorce settlements. In particular, a family treasure of hers becomes the item of contention. It’s a painting believed to be an original work of 17th Century artist Georges de La Tour and worth oodles and oodles of money. This, in turn, prompts Roxy’s family for a visit and a social confrontation with Charles-Henri’s family, the attorneys, and various curators and auction house representatives. As the auction of the painting approaches, Isabel and Edgar’s secret unravels in the background while a murder takes place in the foreground, forcing the main characters to reevaluate their situations and perspectives in a brand new way.
“Le Divorce” is a handsomely crafted film with little reasoning behind it. Comprised of a series of shorts, it lacks an overall storyline that pieces things together and it defies logic with unnecessary plot devices. Ironically, you would think that the divorce proceedings would be the central narrative to which everything else revolves; however, if you add up the screen times of the other story arcs (Isabel and Edgar’s romance, for instance), you’ll find that that wasn’t necessarily the case. In total, there are roughly five different kinds of movies found within “Le Divorce.” You have a realistic drama involving Roxeanne, her daughter, and the actual divorce; you have a whimsical romance between Isabel and Edgar; there’s a thriller component involving a frantic soon to be ex-husband; a biting social commentary and comedy surrounding an auctioned painting; and lastly, an unexpected murder mystery to baffle over.
Juggling all of these genres in one film is awkward at best because so much of what you see is out of place and unrelated when combined. In fact, one could argue that the film’s heroine is not actually Roxeanne, the one going through “le divorce,” but rather Isabel, who is the California girl naïve in French culture who gradually learns and adapts on her own. It’s obvious that writer/director James Ivory should have taken notes from the Jill Sprecher “13 Conversations About One Thing,” a recent film that was able to handle multiple story lines and yet, keep an intertwining theme – a quest to find and comprehend the meaning of happiness.
But “Le Divorce” does not tie the pieces together as much as it pushes them apart. It uses a red Kelly handbag, in reference to the famous Hermes bag that Grace Kelly coveted, as a symbol of class distinction and the mechanism to propel Isabel into cultural enlightenment. But even more bothersome than the “floating red purse” is the development of Matthew Modine as Tellman, the psychotic stalker husband who loves his wife (like a puppy dog) only to see her having an affair with Roxeanne’s husband. The insertion of this character is a blatant cop out – an attempt to resolve Roxeanne’s emotional instability and to force her to move on with her life. But it’s also an odd disruption, turning a breezy, light romantic comedy into a messy pseudo drama with few ramifications.
All of that said, I honestly do find Merchant Ivory films, like “Remains of the Day” and “Howard’s End,” very charming. In these films as in this one, you’ll always see a situational analysis of etiquette and style; you’ll always see a fish out of water. In “The Mystic Masseur,” a grouping of diplomats from around the world congregate at an elegant English home only to be confused with how to eat, what to eat, and how to behave. All of a sudden, one of the diplomats loses his eyepiece in a bowl of soup, which causes quite a commotion. Such humor like that is rampant in “Le Divorce,” where the Americans are continually analyzing the French and the French are continually analyzing the Americans. But it’s all very subtle and with a touch of dry humor. The French obsession with “The Simpsons,” the fashion statement of scarves, the emphasis on fine cuisine (especially, cheese), and the attitudes toward sexual promiscuity and business acumen – all are notable differences and perspectives that highlight the true joys of international cinema, an arena in which we can learn about other cultures, traditions, and customs.
The film easily benefits from the charisma of Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts, not to mention all of their American, British, and French co-stars. While Hudson is off playing her romantic-comedy self, Naomi is agonizing in perfectly dramatic fashion – but does anybody seem to notice or care? Thierry Lhermitte is suave and well-refined as the unfaithful dallier and the film showcases some splendid performances by Stockard Channing, the tough nosed American mom, Glenn Close, the sophisticated and knowledgeable ex-flame, and my favorite, Stephen Fry, the British representative from Christie’s, who is bubbly and quick to point out even the slightest French flaw.
“Le Divorce” does not have that je ne sais quois to make it a rewarding movie, but it is entertaining. If you like the actresses involved and have been or are thinking of going to France or Europe, you’ll discover the film as a fun filled travelogue – from the streets of downtown Paris to the French countryside to the Eiffel Tower. It’s a light, festive movie with subtle humor and nuances. And who knows? Perhaps you’ll even pick up a French phrase or two along the way, like I did. Allons au cinema, to be sure!

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