A century and a half later, we find the Ismail Merchant/James Ivory production of Le Divorce dealing with many of the same themes in comparable ways. Producer Merchant and director Ivory, usually working, as here, with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, specialize in literary adaptations. They have been responsible for such hits as A Room With a View, Howards End, The Remains of the Day and The Golden Bowl and for such lesser works as Quartet, The Bostonians, Jefferson in Paris and A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries. Their films are inevitably talky but quiet. Many viewers love them. Other viewers would sooner have anesthetic-free dentistry. I'm one of their fans. But Le Divorce is not one of their best films.
Based on the Diane Johnson novel, Le Divorce features a cast of thousands and a plot more event-filled than Merchant/Ivory often produce. Robert Altman and John Sayles are good at this kind of thing, but they are usually working from scripts written directly for the screen. Jhabvala's screenplay this time out delivers too much story at the expense of character development, a sin the team doesn't commit in its best collaborations.
The narrative this time out involves two families interconnected by marriage. The Walkers are Californians. Dad Chester (Sam Waterston) is a Santa Barbara college professor married to no-nonsense wife Margeeve (Stockard Channing). Their older daughter Roxeanne (Naomi Watts) is a poet of modest accomplishment married to French painter of lesser accomplishment Charles-Henri de Persand (Melvil Poupaud). The de Persands live in Paris and are the parents of a 6-year-old daughter; Roxy is pregnant with their second child. The plot kicks off when Charles-Henri leaves Roxy for a dizzy Russian named Magda (Rona Hartner) who is married to an American lawyer named Tellman (Matthew Modine).
This is the divorce of the title, and everybody finds a way to get involved. The Walkers dispatch Roxy's younger sister, Isabel (Kate Hudson), to Paris to lend her sister moral support. And the two blondes hang out with their expatriate American writer friend Olivia Pace (Glenn Close). But mostly Isabel hops in the sack, first with the young bohemian Yves (Romain Duris) and subsequently and more emotionally with middle-age intellectual Edgar Cosset (Thierry Lhermitte) who just happens be 1) married, 2) Charles-Henri's uncle, and 3) Olivia's former lover.
This line is devoted to letting you catch your breath. The de Persands, of whom there are as many as there are Walkers, are determined to be ever so tea-drinking civilized about the divorce. And the Walkers strive to do the same. Both families even agree to gather for Sunday brunch at the home of de Persand matriarch Suzanne (Leslie Caron) where Isabel gets to dine with Edgar's wife, Amelie (Marie-Christine Adam). But when the de Persands discover that the painting Roxy brought from Santa Barbara to hang on her Parisian mantel might be an original La Tour, assertions of community property rights make everybody raw.
All of this is employed to the same ends that Twain sought 134 years ago. Yes, Roxy and Isabel are modern, sexually active women. We gather that Charles-Henri married Roxy after she got pregnant with their first child. And yes, Isabel is aware that Edgar is married when she gets involved with him. But still, the Walker women believe in true love, in committed marriage and in the sanctity of family. In contrast, the de Persands believe that love is just the word given to desire, which inevitably burns itself out, that marriage is an arrangement for producing heirs, that adultery is ho-hum, that betrayal is unfortunate but certainly nothing to get ruffled about and that the family name is what's sacred, not the family bonds. Guess whose side this movie is on.
If all this sounds a little simplistic, it is. I know we're supposed to be mad at the French, but this movie is so one-sided you feel sorry for the way it treats them. If you want a clue to the film's prejudices, note how the various parties respond to the issue of the painting. The de Persands are greedy, while the Walkers are generous. The experts at the Louvre are contemptuous, while those at the Getty (led by Bebe Neuwirth), in league with their droll Brit ally (Stephen Fry) at Sotheby's, are radiantly canny. And in the end, we just care about these folks too little. When one character attempts suicide we just don't believe it, and when another is the victim of violence we (along with the movie) can't work up even a moment of horror.
Still, the actors shine. Hudson and Watts are very watchable and utterly convincing as sisters.