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Le Divorce

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Le Divorce

Starring: Kate Hudson, Naomi Watts
Director: James Ivory
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 115 Minutes
Release Date: August 2003
Genres: Comedy, Drama

*Also starring: Marie-Christine Adam, Glenn Close, Stockard Channing, Sam Waterston, Thierry Lhermitte, Leslie Caron, Bebe Neuwirth, Matthew Modine

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Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

In Lerner and Loewe's musical "My Fair Lady" based on G.B. Shaw's Pygmalion, Professor Henry Higgins, a stickler for linguistic style, reminds us, "The French don't care what they do, actually; so long as they pronounce it properly." Prescient professor! Not everyone in the world thinks like us Americans, nor do others speak like us as the French just now remind us by rejecting the term "e-mail" just as we superciliously suggested using the term "freedom fries" to refer to those greasy potatoes that really have nothing much to do with France anyway.

Cultural disparities are not only inconvenient to travelers but often comical, a concept that James Ivory, inspired by Diane Johnson's novel, "Le Divorce," milks for subtle humor, nuanced criticism, and an absorbing (if overplotted) story. The French, oppose not only what they consider America's so-called gung- ho cowboy spirit in foreign policy but as we learn in this film would quickly go along with Maggie Smith's observation in "Tea with Mussolini" while watching Yanks at a nearby table eating a hot fudge sundae, "The Americans vulgarize everything." At the risk of being schematic, we note from "Le Divorce" that the stereotypical American does not see eye to eye with the stereotypical Frenchman in matters of sex, morality, food, and fashion though the differences are more subtle than pronounced.

To illustrate the thesis within a charming plot featuring characters both charismatic and snooty, the Merchant Ivory production goes with an ensemble exposition which, for convenience sake, we can say centers on Isabel (Kate Hudson). To assist her pregnant sister, Roxy (Naomi Watts) who is living as an expatriate in Paris with her daughter and her French husband, Charles-Henry (Melvil Poupaud). Her happiness is shattered suddenly when her man without much ado simply walks out on her to pursue an affair and appears stunned that his wife bears an American stubbornness: she does not want to give him a divorce.

For her part Isabel is not about to spend all her time with her sister but rather takes a job editing papers of an American author, Olivia Pace (Glenn Close), has a fling with Olivia's young bohemian assistant (Romain Duris), eventually settling into the essentially European role of mistress to a much older diplomat, Edgar (Thierry Lhermitte). Charles-Henry's mother and family matriarch, Mme. Suzanne de Persand (Leslie Caron), moves to settle the marital problems in a rational way, perturbed by the emotional turmoil expressed by Charles- Henry's soon-to-be-divorced wife, Roxy.

If that sounds complicated (especially for a fluffy comedy), there's a lot more going on, enough subplots to fill the screen with two additional movies. For example, there's considerable ado about the ownership of a painting which Roxy took from her Santa Barbara home to Paris, a work which may or may not be an authentic by a French master. The French have laid a claim on behalf of the Louvre while the estranged couple differ on how the proceeds should be divided. In addition, the parents of the two young women (Sam Waterston and Stockard Channing), together with the women's very American brother (Thomas Lennon) have arrived in Paris following a half-hearted attempt by the emotional Roxy to commit suicide while out of the blue, an entertainment lawyer (Mathew Modine) is stalking his own wife, furious that she is now carrying on an affair with Roxy's estranged husband. Got it now?

Somehow all the strands save one involving the entertainment lawyer are logically woven together in a film that may suggest a loosely plotted Robert Altman drama but which retains Kate Hudson's character as its center. While Americans have been known to shack up with people other than their spouses particularly if the significant other is rich the French have institutionalized the tradition of wealthy men who keep mistresses. The women are given introductory gifts (in the case of the Isabel-Edgar affair, an $18,000 red alligator bag) and the women are ultimately treated to expensive scarves such as the one that Edgar, shopping in an exclusive store, tries on the American writer he runs into in an exclusive store, Olivia (who happened to be an ex-mistress given the same treatment).

The ambiance a plush chateau owned by French matriarch Mme. de Persand, an elegant restaurant serving a $900 lunch (a tab that upsets the American brother while treated like nothing extraordinary by the French), the auction gallery selling the painting owned by Roxy and her flighty husband Charles- Henry serves to punctuate the differences between the stylish, matter-of-fat French best illustrated by Leslie Caron as a French Maggie Smith and the passionate Americans, best shown by the hysterical pleas of Naomi Watts.

While Kate Hudson's education in the culture of the French stands out, Naomi Watts's powerful performance is the ne plus ultra of the film. As opposed to the calm exterior of the family matriarch, Watts's face shows the fury and frustration of a woman who is facing life with a daughter and a baby on the way in a country whose culture she no longer accepts. Above all, we never lose track of James Ivory's vision which is to trip the light fantastic rather than indulge in melodramatic fanfare in a film that shows how good can ultimately come from separation and divorce.

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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