Like previous Merchant-Ivory productions, Le Divorce concerns culture clashes, disruptive expatriates, and squabbles over stuff. This time the setting is contemporary Paris instead of the team’s usual choices — say, 19th century Britain or India — which only underlines a theme apparent in all their films, namely, some things never change.
Whether you read this consistency as a reverence for the past or fear of the future, it both produces and depends on familiar prejudices. Le Divorce presents these prejudices as objects of amusement rather than trappings of cultural presumption or class-based power. Based on Diane Johnson’s novel, James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s episodic screenplay is less interested in character arcs than discrete moments, mini-tableaux displaying predictable differences between generations, genders, and national ideologies.
The film opens as Isabel (Kate Hudson, who will please now take some time off from playing the intrepid-though-naïve romantic lead, as she has in every movie since Almost Famous) arrives in Paris from Santa Barbara (according to novelist Johnson, her name alludes to Henry James’ Isabel Archer, exemplary American in Paris). Isabel is all fluttery expectations, come to visit her sister Roxy (Naomi Watts), a poet married to Charles-Henri (Melvil Poupaud) and expecting their second child. Emerging from her cab, Isabel runs smack into Charles-Henri, just that minute leaving his wife for another woman (the sultry Russian Magda [Rona Hartner]), though he’s incapable of explanation, saying only, “I’m in a hurry, I’ve got to go.”
Loosely structured as a series of such coincidences, the film takes some pleasure in characters stepping in and out of each other’s lives, passing judgments and reaffirming stereotypes. So, while Charles-Henri’s bad behavior motivates Isabel and Roxy’s discussion of his indulgence by his mother Suzanne (Leslie Caron), his famille notes his initial misstep in marrying “the American.” Similarly, when Isabel, “the other American,” becomes specially naïve mistress to Suzanne’s brother Edgar (Thierry Lhermitte), cross-cultural misunderstandings proliferate (that so many of these produce a series of gently Francophobic jokes is surely coincidental).
Glib and myopic (in the sense that he sees his relationship with Isabel as usefully “instructive” for her), Edgar is some sort of tv talking head, offering his opinions on global affairs with a sort of imperial self-assurance. Impressed by his appearance on a talk show, the prosaically “American” Isabel calls him to flirt. They lunch at a fancy restaurant, she’s utterly charming in a new, chic and darker hairstyle. Within two meetings, he invites her to be his “mistress,” ostensibly without strings. She agrees, despite (or because of) the fact she’s already sleeping with a perfectly sweet and slightly shaggy painter names Yves (Romain Duris).
Edgar and Isabel have what appears to be fine sex, whereupon he gives her a red crocodile Hermes handbag, costing $18,000 and called a “Kelly” (after Grace Kelly, another famous American in Europe), the same present he bestowed on another lover years ago, another expatriate writer, Olivia (Glenn Close), who happens to employ Isabel at just this juncture. And so on. Soon, it’s clear that everyone knows about the affair, including Edgar’s wife, at which point Isabel must recognize her own misunderstanding of what she might expect from this old school womanizer.
Though the blond Americans display a certain crass new-worldliness, the impending divorce has everyone scrambling for stuff: heirlooms, furniture, and in particular, a painting that may or may not be a Georges de la Tour. (Even if it’s been in Roxy’s family for generations, it is, Suzanne notes, “French.”) Plots to secure the painting begin hatching, aided by reps from the Getty Museum (Bebe Neuwirth), Christie’s (Stephen Fry), and the Louvre (Daniel Mesguich), as well as Roxy and Isabel’s comically upright and calculating brother, Roger (Thomas Lennon), and vapid parents (Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston), not to mention Roxy’s blandly handsome lawyer, Bertram (Jean-Marc Barr).
Conflicts escalate and recede, with stakes ranging from personal pride and responsibility to presumed birthrights and privileges. The wrench tossed into this mix is the emotionally deranged and increasingly crude American Tellman (Matthew Modine), married to Magda and wholly incapable of “controlling” his pain and hostility. His class is not specified — he’s just the “worst American.” And while the affluent families conspire to claim property (whether out of vengeance or egotism or their raging presumption of privilege), for Tellman, the wife is an irreplaceable possession, whom he compares to a beloved puppy. (His sometimes weepy and sometimes creepy efforts to win Isabel’s sympathy on this point make his tactless-Yank status seem quite like overkill — Modine appears to be acting in a movie no one else in the cast has envisioned.)
Tellman’s vigorous assertion of ownership appears to counter the others’ more genteel behaviors. But in the end of Le Divorce, everyone makes the same assumption, varying only by degrees: they all “deserve” what they want, even if they’re not sure what that is.