Fizz-less in France: Merchant/Ivory Tackles Contemporary Paris in “Le Divorce”
by Brandon Judell
They say you can take the boy out of the Bronx but not the Bronx out of the boy. The saying also applies to fat girls gone thin. Apparently, an obese woman is always hiding within.
But what about Merchant/Ivory productions? When you take this twosome out of the genre consisting of Henry James, British estates, and stiff upper lips, what residue is left? What is the result of this daring departure? To be fair, let’s just say that with the case of “Le Divorce,” it’s indeed much more enjoyable than hearing J.Lo intone, “It’s turkey time. Gobble! Gobble!”
Like their “Slaves of New York” proved, a merchant/ivory project tackling modern times and themes can spell disaster. or in this case: b-l-a-n-d. (“A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries” being a superb exception.)
Anyway, one thing that can be said about “Le Divorce”, an adaptation of Diane Johnson’s best-selling novel, is that it’s timely in its exploration of the foundations of the American/French love/hate relationship. We learn the French look down on the use of granulated sugar not in cube form. Also, we learn that it’s good form for a man to start off an affair with a gift of an expensive pocketbook, and equally fine for him to end the same with a gift of a designer scarf.
“Le Divorce”‘s heroine, who winds up as a recipient of both pocketbook and scarf, is one Isabel Walker (Kate Hudson), a California Princess of Naiveté, who flies to Paris to help her half-sister Roxanne Walker de Persand (a sublime Naomi Watts), a poet, through her pregnancy. Sadly, on the day Isabel arrives, Charles-Henri (Melvil Poupard), Roxy’s tortured, untalented artiste of a husband, has walked out on both her and their daughter. The reason? He’s just met the love of his life.
Consequently, Isabel is soon doing her best to help the emotionally distraught Roxy cope, while working odd-jobs for American expatriates, and having sex with French men of various ages and economic classes, including Roxy’s husband’s much older uncle, a charming, warmongering politician.
Between copulations, Isabel has time to get a swanky new hairdo and expensive undergarments. She also learns some history. For example, a street grocer instructs that at one time, ladies eating white asparagus were considered quite daring.
So with Paris in the background and a genial cast in the foreground, one that includes Sam Waterston and Stockard Channing as the girls’ parents, Leslie Caron as the ultimate French mother-in-law, Stephen Fry as an art expert, and Bebe Neuwirth as a curator, you really want to adore this movie.
But you can’t for several reasons, the foremost being the unevenness of tone. Director/co-writer James Ivory seems to be making several films at once. A social satire. A broad comedy. A look at love in turmoil. There’s even a double murder. What? Let’s just say Matthew Modine as a jealous husband, in the worst performance of his career, is directly involved.
Tone aside, in between episodes of Franco-American hostility, the film veers in to takes on French women and their love of scarves plus a look at French cooking. Believe me. This is no “Eat Drink Man Woman.” Nothing gels.
Worse than the food is Kate Hudson. Throughout her career, this star’s at-times iridescent talent seems somehow directly tied to her hairdos, sort of like a female Samson. Bad stylings in “Alex and Emma” and “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” led to sub-par performances. In “Le Divorce,” where Ms. Hudson sports numerous dos, her performance goes from moving to shallow and blank, depending on the length of her bangs.
Anyway, I thought her performance was horrendous until I started reading Diane Johnson’s book which is pretty dreadful in itself. The narrator in its pages is Isabel who admits she can’t write like her sister: “I wish I could find two screwy words and put them together so that they fizz.” Why have a narrator who can’t fizz?
Isabel’s equally fizz-less insights about France include “orthodontia [is] relatively unimportant here, compared to Santa Barbara.” Her brother’s point of view on the matter which Isabel shares with us is: “The French are a funny race. They fight with their feet and fuck with their face.”
Ivory and his co-writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala have left out those tidbits, they’ve changed Isabel from a brunette into a blonde, her French lover is no longer 70 years old, and they’ve omitted all the references to “dogshit.” Otherwise, they’ve perfectly recreated Johnson’s annoyingly unpleasant lead character. The question is: Why bother?