The contemporary Parisian setting of "Le Divorce" means that, unlike with other Merchant-Ivory movies, watching it is not the closest most of us will ever come to experiencing narcolepsy. Seeing Kate Hudson flit around Paris in the silly-chic outfits designed by Carole Ramsey is a more lively prospect than being asked to admire the attention to period detail in the team's usual stultifying exercises in literary illustration.
That doesn't mean that the Tasteful Two have suddenly learned how to make movies. "Le Divorce," adapted by director James Ivory and his usual conspirator in dullness Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from Diane Johnson's novel, is an attempt at a Jamesian comedy of modern manners done in the touristy, picture-postcard gloss of something like "Funny Face." It's the sort of thing that requires precision, timing, sexiness and a choreographer's gift for keeping the disparate cast of characters twirling in their separate spheres. For all the culture and taste that sits on the surface of Merchant-Ivory productions like the exquisite table setting for a meal that never arrives, they are some of the clumsiest filmmakers around.
With the exception of "A Room With a View" (a movie I could watch anytime), I've never seen a Merchant-Ivory film that didn't manage to mangle or misunderstand or dumb down its source. Some of the performances in "Howards End" or "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge" could keep you from seeing how they screwed up those novels. And Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins' performances in "The Remains of the Day" might almost convince you that lousy novel was worthwhile in the first place.
I confess to finding Diane Johnson's novel a tad wearying, though there's no doubt it has structure and wit and an amused taste for American appetite doing civilized battle with European breeding. Ivory and Jhabvala's adaptation removes large swatches of character motivation, so that events happen without our understanding why and the behavior of the characters seems to make no sense.
Kate Hudson plays Isabel Walker (the name a nod to James's Isabel Archer), a footloose young American who arrives in Paris to help her half-sister Roxeanne prepare for the birth of her second child. The day Isabel arrives, Roxy's French husband Charles-Henri (Melville Poupaud) walks out on Roxy for another woman. A painting of St. Ursula that has been in the two sisters' family for years and which hangs in Roxy's apartment is suddenly thought to have been painted by de la Tour and it becomes a pawn in the divorce settlement. Meanwhile, Isabel becomes the mistress of Charles-Henri's uncle (Thierry Lhermitte), a wealthy right-wing politician whose traditional gift to his mistresses is an Hermes Kelly Bag. (That the bags go for about eighteen grand should give you an idea of just how wealthy he is.)
Other characters flit in and out, most awkwardly Matthew Modine as the American husband of Charles-Henri's new love and, most alarmingly, Glenn Close as an expatriate American novelist who hires Isabel to help organize her papers. (Moviegoers who have sat through "28 Days Later" may be hard pressed to decide which is scarier -- that movie's vision of London overtaken by zombie cannibals or Glenn Close in a Susan Sontag wig. When Close is called on to make an anti-poverty speech for a charity and says there's no telling who the next victims will be, you want to say, "Anybody who has to watch you act.")
The movie is handsomely shot by Pierre Lhomme (Bertrand Blier's "Mon Homme). This is Paris as you might fantasize it before a vacation with artfully distressed apartment buildings and chic shops. Though even here there is at times an inappropriate grandiosity. Johnson describes Roxy's mother-in-law Suzanne (Leslie Caron) as having "a small chateau." The place we see looks so immense you expect extras in Louis XIV garb to be milling around the gardens.
This kind of tourist brochure extravagance only gets you so far with the story jumping from place to place and, in the case of Naomi Watts's Roxy, the behavior inexplicable. Roxy refuses to grant Charles-Henri a divorce even though he's a self-absorbed little shit. And given the fact that, as the aggrieved party, she stands to lose her shirt if she doesnt file for divorce, she acts not only self-righteously but, given the fact that she's got one child to care for and another on the way, irresponsibly, and we never understand why she digs in her heels. Perhaps it's because Naomi Watts, even in a role as opaque as this one, seems to possess too much common sense for this kind of prudish stubbornness. The character needs a streak of comic hysteria, which Ivory doesn't know how to bring out in her. Roxy seems meant to be an emblem of American self-righteousness in the face of loose European morals, but it's hard to see the satire in that when, as a colleague observed to me after the screening, "every French character in the movie comes off as a cunt." (That's the British, nongender-specific epithet, by the way.)
Certainly that's true of Thierry Lhermitte's reptilian Uncle Edgar. You recoil from him not because of his habit of taking young women for his mistresses but because he seems so cold and predatory you can scarcely imagine him giving himself over to any sensual pleasure. Everything about him -- the way he orders a meal, the way he makes love, the way he chooses presents for his mistresses -- is conducted with the cold logic of a business decision, not exactly a turn-on (though he is charming in the scene where he bids Isabel adieu). The Merchant-Ivory penchant for collecting celebrities the way some people acquire antiques can be seen in the casting of Leslie Caron as Suzanne. The woman is a monster determined to hold onto her family's name even if it means riding roughshod over her daughter-in-law and grandchildren. It might have been amusing to see Caron, so beloved for the slight gamine she was, transformed into a ball-breaking matriarch of propriety. But Ivory seems to value Caron's pedigreed cheekbones more than anything else, to be aware of the class she lends his clumsy little trifle, and he hasn't allowed her to cut loose and raise some hell.
That's also true of Kate Hudson, who gives the best performance in the movie, though she seems always on the verge of being funnier and dirtier than she's allowed to be. Elsewhere the cast is accumulated for their cachet more than for any role they're given to play. Some of the casting makes no sense. You can believe that Hudson and Watts share a parent, but you can't believe that the combination of Sam Waterston and Stockard Channing could have produced either of them. And for a filmmaking team that has such a reputation as connoisseurs, the way much of the cast is thrown away is shameful. Bebe Neuwirth gets little to do as a representative of the Getty Museum, though Stephen Fry brings some crispness and laughs to his scene as a representative of Christie's. The French actors fare worse. Watching Catherine Samie bustle back and forth as the concierge of Roxy's apartment you'd have no clue that this woman, who starred in Frederick Wiseman's stage and film versions of "The Last Letter," is one of France's most revered Comedie Francaise actresses. (Try to imagine Jessica Tandy cast as a maid.) And Nathalie Richard, one of the most talented contemporary French actresses (as she showed in "Irma Vep," "Haut/bas/fragile," and "Late August, Early September) is given a chic soft perm in place of a character.
"Le Divorce" is not from source material so great that the movie can count as a desecration. But with the advance reviews buying into the usual line about Merchant-Ivory's literacy and taste (presumably a bulwark against what the rest of us barbarians out there are going to see) you see how the trappings of refinement can prevail against actual craft.
The best costume pictures in recent years -- Iain Softley's "The Wings of the Dove," Alfonso Cuaron's "A Little Princess," Mike Figgis's "The Browning Version," Clare Peploe's "Triumph of Love" -- have an instinctive understanding of their source and an emotional involvement not constipated by "production values." With those examples out there, why are Merchant-Ivory movies still accorded so much respect? And with "Sex and the City" in the midst of its final season and still (despite work of Sarah Jessica Parker) a model of farce structure and timing and acting, why should anyone give two hoots about the wobbly timing and imprecise targets of "Le Divorce"?