Dir: James Ivory. US/France. 2003. 115mins.
It's no coincidence that Kate Hudson's character is named Isabel Walker, a thinly disguised Isabel Archer, in Merchant Ivory's latest film Le Divorce. Diane Johnson, herself an American who has lived in Paris, wanted to update the Henry James concept of American naifs being influenced by the old world when she wrote her popular 1997 source novel. So even though Le Divorce is set in today's Paris with hip young actors like Hudson and Naomi Watts in the lead roles, it feels like an old-style Jamesian saga of culture clash, rigid etiquette and subtle intrigue.
Merchant Ivory in fact were planning to film The Portrait Of A Lady some years ago with Glenn Close as Madame Merle, but were beaten to it by Jane Campion who cast Barbara Hershey in the role.
Fans of the film-makers shouldn't fear that they have abandoned the literary classics altogether, for Le Divorce is in fact Portrait in modern dress with Glenn Close in the Madame Merle role and as much repressed passion as James could muster. It has the mood and tone of a period piece, and, as such, not much of a grasp on contemporary reality, but that does not mean it is without myriad pleasures. With its glittering multi-national cast and the reliable hand of Ivory behind the camera, it should become a must-see for upscale filmgoers who relish this kind of sophisticated comedy of manners. Critics will be lukewarm, but adult audiences will be unable to resist its allure. It will easily outperform the last two Merchant Ivory Ivory-directed efforts The Golden Bowl and A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries and could well be the team's biggest hit since The Remains Of The Day.
The film begins briskly with the arrival in Paris of young Isabel from an affluent, but not too rich, family in Santa Barbara. She has flown over to spend the summer with her sister Roxeanne (Watts) who is pregnant with her second child by her husband Charles-Henri de Persand (Poupaud). But as soon as she arrives at the couple's (sumptuous) apartment, he walks out - abandoning his expectant wife and daughter for his Russian lover.
The film details the subsequent divorce proceedings which are by turns comic and tragic. Under French law, the scoundrel Charles-Henri is entitled to 50% of his wife's possessions - which include the Walker family heirloom, a portrait which could be by 17th-century French artist Georges De La Tour.
Among the characters who flit in and out of the sisters' lives are the imperious de Persand family matriarch Suzanne (Caron), her handsome diplomat brother Uncle Edgar (Lhermitte) who embarks on an affair with Isabel, the Walker parents (Waterston and Channing) who come over to Paris to console their daughter, a distinguished novelist called Olivia Pace (Close) who hires Isabel to work for her, Olivia's other assistant Yves (Duris) who also beds Isabel, a divorce lawyer (Barr) who woos Roxeanne, a variety of art experts (Neuwirth and Fry among them) who are brought in to evaluate the painting and an unstable entertainment lawyer (Modine) whose wife has left him for Charles-Henri.
The biggest problems here are of tone. For the most part a frothy comedy of manners, the story spirals into attempted suicide and murder which are presented with a levity which belies the pain of the characters involved. Modine's character on whose actions the film's resolution lies is absurd, while the French traditions on show here are strictly aristocratic and reflect little of contemporary French mores and culture.
Still Hudson and Watts are charming, there is a witty motif in the Hermes Kelly bag, and the inimitable Merchant has scored access to Parisian locations which other film-makers would envy. When Euro Disney refused to allow the film to shoot its climactic kidnapping in its theme park, Merchant secured permission to shoot at the top of the Eiffel Tower itself.
Prod cos: Merchant Ivory, Radar Pictures
US dist: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Int'l dist: 20th Century Fox
Exec prods: Ted Field, Scott Kroopf, Erica Huggins
Prods: Ismail Merchant, Michael Schiffer
Scr: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala & James Ivory, from the novel by Diane Johnson
Cinematography: Pierre Lhomme
Prod des: Frederic Benard
Music: Richard Robbins
Ed: John David Allen
Main cast: Kate Hudson, Naomi Watts, Thierry Lhermitte, Leslie Caron, Glenn Close, Stockard Channing, Romain Duris, Sam Waterston, Nathalie Richard, Melvil Poupaud, Bebe Neuwirth, Matthew Modine, Stephen Fry