Film: And Not a Helena Bonham Carter in Sight. ; le Divorce James Ivory 117 MINS, 12A
Romney, Jonathan, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
Mea culpa: there's one thing I've been lazy about as a critic over the years, and that's being too ready to use the brand name "Merchant- Ivory" as dismissive shorthand for a certain strain of stuffily prestigious screen Englishness. But the actual films directed by (the American) James Ivory, produced by (the Indian) Ismail Merchant and written by (the German- born) Ruth Prawer Jhabvala conform to type less often than detractors might think. And although the trio are often accused of catering to the heritage industry, really they seem to make the films that interest them whether there is an obvious audience or not.
Le Divorce, their latest collaboration, is ostensibly pretty much what you might imagine an upbeat, brittle, Parisian comedy by the trio to be: tastefully star-studded, benignly snobbish, laced with swellegant furnishings. With its populous cast of French and American actors and Stephen Fry, this Americans-in-Paris story is rather like Woody Allen's transatlantic musical comedy Everyone Says I Love You, mercifully without the songs. If the film has a target audience at all, it's surely the same self-consciously upmarket Europhiles targeted by New Yorker ads.
Based on a novel by Diane Johnson, Le Divorce is a story of two Californian sisters falling in love and out of love with Paris. Ingenue Isabel (Kate Hudson) flies in to see her pregnant sister Roxane (Naomi Watts), whose French husband (Melvil Poupaud) is leaving her for another woman. Visiting the aristocratic in-laws, headed by Leslie Caron, Isabel finds herself attracted to Uncle Edgar, a right-wing TV talking head (Thierry Lhermitte, precise and smoothly bird-like). Soon, Edgar has persuaded Isabel to become his mistress - in much the same way that he might take her on as a PA - and this bland beach girl is exploring a new universe of fine cuisine, luxury lingerie and Hermes handbags. Meanwhile, Roxane feels thoroughly disillusioned with the French way of life, especially since her divorce entails the evaluation of her possessions, among them a painting which might or might not be a Georges de la Tour. Also embroiled are a flamboyant American novelist played by Glenn Close (whose performance you'd have to call a triumph of arch) and a rejected husband (Matthew Modine), whose demented vendetta triggers a ludicrous climax up the Eiffel Towel - where else? Well, where else indeed for a Paris comedy, especially one laced with Gainsbourg and twiddling accordions on the soundtrack? But be honest - who ever expected a Merchant-Ivory film to end with a gun-toting maniac caught by surveillance cameras? As obvious as Le Divorce often feels, just as often it's anything but: for example, we're invited neither to endorse nor to condemn the fact that Isabel two-times her sympathetic hipster boyfriend Yves (Romain Duris) with a cynical far-right ideologue.
At first, the film looks set to peddle the usual stereotypes. The French will be flighty on the one hand, impeccably classy on the other: the aristos shock the Americans by their blithe chatter about adultery, while the film starts with Roxane's greengrocer discoursing on 17th-century attitudes to asparagus. The film undeniably commodifies the things that wealthy Americans traditionally find irresistible about France - its sanctified, temple-like lingerie shops, the quasi-English tweediness of the landed gentry. The Americans, meanwhile, are gauche, impressionable, awkwardly attuned to the nuances of European culture. …