Too many films today have no strong central, cohering theme. They are merely about a bunch people living through a predictable assortment of human experiences – love, suffering, regret, death.
What a pleasure it is, then, to see James Ivory's screen adaptation of Diane Johnson's novel Le Divorce. Ivory and his collaborators are regularly lambasted these days as the epitome of bloodless, middlebrow cinema. But over the years the Merchant Ivory Picture, at its best, has become a model of intelligent classicism.
Like the Merchant Ivory adaptations of Henry James (such as The Golden Bowl ), Le Divorce begins as a light comedy of manners about culture clash. Isabel (Kate Hudson) and Roxeanne (Naomi Watts) are Americans in modern-day Paris. Isabel is the flighty newcomer, while Roxeanne gives the impression of having settled in, via her union with Charles-Henri (Melvil Poupaud).
However, when Roxeanne finds herself faced with the sudden collapse of her marriage and a gruelling initiation into the labyrinthine divorce laws of France, she must reinvent herself – which includes keeping an eye on Isabel as she becomes involved with a much older, married, conservative politician, Edgar (Thierry Lhermitte).
On its surface, this film is a lot of fun, especially for anyone who has ever lived in Paris. While duly covering all the usual picture postcard locations (the Eiffel Tower, the Pompidou Centre, etc), Ivory shows us how many diverse nooks and crannies of this city he is familiar with. It is also a beautifully observed film about customs and rituals – such as what being a Frenchman's mistress entails.
But it is when the film gets down to deeper levels of behaviour that its theme becomes evident. The paradox which the film explores relates to the different ways in which the French and the Americans express their emotions. Both tribes have very different ideas about what it means to be "open".
The Americans are always looking for emotional showdowns, episodes of truth-telling. Yet they baulk at the droll ease with which their French neighbours can discuss the intimate sex lives of public figures. The French characters, for their part, have a tricky code of sophistication. Anything goes in the realm of desire, but Edgar's philandering is discreetly and dexterously "managed" by his mother and wife.
A minor character embodies an extreme state of emotional rawness: Tellman (Matthew Modine), the abandoned spouse of Henri-Charles's new lover, who rages around Paris indiscreetly blaring out his pain and confusion. The grey zone into which the film takes this character signals a swerve from comedy to drama (and back) which doesn't quite work, but certainly resonates throughout the piece.
As always in Ivory's work, the actors form a splendid ensemble. Glenn Close is terrific as Olivia, an expatriate American novelist modelled on Mary McCarthy and Susan Sontag. Olivia's observations of French society and the human comedy at first seem brittle, but the revelation of her own past link with Edgar creates a fine moment of pathos.
Leslie Caron is equally good as Suzanne, Edgar's mother – especially in the scene where she sniffily discusses the affairs of men with her strait-laced daughter, Charlotte (Nathalie Richard).
As the central sister duo, Hudson and Watts are perfectly cast. Both are allowed to expand the composite pictures we already have of their screen personas – Hudson getting beyond the ditzy blonde, and Watts adding a note of maturity to her generally neurotic roles.
Le Divorce affords an audience the pleasure of seeing a fine cinematic craftsman effortlessly weaving a story not only from diverse characters and story threads, but also different modes of acting and reacting, different sets of values and beliefs. These days, that's a rare achievement.
© Adrian Martin November 2003