Many, many years ago, the great filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch remarked, “I’ve been to Paris, France, and I’ve been to Paris, Paramount. On the whole, I prefer Paris, Paramount.” The new Merchant-Ivory production Le Divorce brings home the truth of Lubitsch’s statement with all the force of a sledgehammer.
This is indeed the sort of movie that might have benefited from having been made on the Parisian sets of Paramount Pictures where Lubitsch created so many of his scintillating comedies. Had that been the case — had the movie the courage of its fairy-tale convictions — then Le Divorce might have lived up to its tag line that “Everything sounds sexier in French.” Instead, it’s a case of everything seeming forced, false and, finally, pretty darn dull.
For a romantic comedy, the movie is notably shy on any kind of real romance, and the comedy shelves are pretty much bare. Most comedies don’t include a suicide bid by a pregnant woman and a double homicide by a deranged ex-husband. But that, I guess, is because Le Divorce is also a drama — really more of a turgid melodrama than anything else — where it’s impossible to give a damn about the characters. There’s just not much dramatic tension to be milked from a movie where you’re completely indifferent to anyone’s fate.
What on earth possessed James Ivory — a filmmaker not exactly known as a barrel of laughs with a penchant for gentle whimsy — to think this was his cup of Mumm’s Extra Dry? Someone should have staged an intervention. The faux-English American Ivory and his partner, Ismail Merchant, are most at home with adaptations of Henry James and E.M. Forster, creating beautifully-mounted, meticulously crafted works that don’t always hold up as riveting drama, but are at least true to themselves.
I have no idea how closely Le Divorce follows its Diane Johnson source novel, since my familiarity with her work begins and ends with her co-authorship of the screenplay for Kubrick’s The Shining; I do know that the material defeated James Ivory and co-author Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. They managed to take a contemporary story and make it feel for all the world like a costume drama. It’s obvious that the appeal to the filmmakers lay in the story’s incredibly complicated crop of characters and interconnecting stories, since that’s very much in the tradition of their period literary sources; but characters in 2003 just don’t behave like characters in 1903, and all efforts to make them into museum pieces only results in stilted falseness.
For that matter, it doesn’t help that there are so many characters. The story itself doesn’t call for them, since it’s fairly simple. American Isabel Walker (the overexposed Kate Hudson) comes to Paris to visit sister Roxy de Persand (Naomi Watts), arriving just in time to find Roxy’s husband, Charles (Melvil Poupand), running off after another woman. The crux of the meandering story involves selling a valuable painting belonging to Roxy that Charles, in their divorce proceedings, is claiming half interest in. In the meantime, Isabel becomes “romantically” involved with a right-wing politician, Edgar Cosset (Thierry Lhermitte), who just happens to be related to Charles, making the involvement seem the height of bad form in the eyes of the family matriarch, Suzanne de Persand (Leslie Caron). And then in another meantime, the estranged husband (Mathew Modine) of Charles’ new flame arrives on the scene as a stalker. To further convolute matters, the girls’ very American (you can tell by the fact that they chew gum and are casually boorish) parents (Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston) arrive on the scene to deal with the question of the painting and … it hardly matters.
The film ends in trite (and very convenient) melodrama, and the auctioning of the painting (the most accomplished bit of filmmaking in the movie) — plus the sense of a great cast wasted in the service of a story that would like to be a whimsical souffle, but comes out more like a bad pound cake to which someone forgot to add the baking powder. I could forgive much of this if the movie were funnier or even as sophisticated as it thinks it is.
There are occasional bright sequences, and the whole business of Edgar’s penchant for giving his latest sexual conquest the same expensive red hand-bag is a touch that actually is worthy of Lubitsch. And I can’t deny that Le Divorce is gorgeously produced and designed. But any movie where I’m distracted from Leslie Caron’s performance by the oversized sofa she’s sitting on has missed the mark.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke