The new film from producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory, “Le Divorce,” claims to be an examination of the cultural differences between the French and the Americans. But the film is only notable in that it reaches new heights of drudgery and ineptness. Not even the usually reliable members of the ensemble cast, including Naomi Watts, Leslie Caron, Stockard Channing and Glenn Close, can lift this film above its confused script and utterly uninteresting characters.
The film follows two American sisters, Isabel (Kate Hudson, in an almost unbearably dull performance) and Roxie (Watts), living in Paris. Roxie has lived there for years and has married a Frenchman. She has one young daughter and another child on the way. Isabel flies in to help Roxie with the pregnancy and arrives just as Roxie’s philandering husband, Charles-Henri (Melvil Poupad), is walking out on her.
This failed marriage leads to the many, many subplots and aimless meanderings that make up the bulk of the film. Although her husband has left her, Roxie must still visit her in-laws. During this meeting, Isabel meets Edgar (Thierry Lhermitte), Roxie’s uncle by marriage. Edgar is significantly older and married, but Isabel finds him intriguing, especially when she discovers that he is very influential in French politics. The two soon start an affair, upsetting both families greatly.
We quickly learn that Edgar is infamous for having such affairs, always starting each one by giving his mistress an expensive Kelly Bag and ending it by giving a present of a scarf. Edgar is supposed to embody all that is French suaveness and sophistication and, of course, all that is uncaring and pretentious. Isabel, however, does not know how to conduct such an affair and starts thinking of it as a real relationship, leading to a rude awakening for her.
The second subplot involves a painting belonging to Roxie, a family heirloom given to her by her parents (played by Channing and Sam Waterston). The painting suddenly drums up interest as it is discovered to be a lost work of the master artist Georges La Tour. What follows are many pointless scenes of arguments over the painting’s worth and ownership. The shining moment of all this irrelevance is a brief appearance by Stephen Fry as a buyer for Christie’s, the auction house. His humorous quips about the French and the British are the only lines that succeed in dealing with issues of culture clash, a goal that the whole movie supposedly aspires to.
The side stories continue as we are introduced to various characters. Glenn Close plays an American writer living in Paris who befriends the sisters and gives Isabel a lot of advice because she too once had an affair with the apparently irresistible Edgar. There is also a jealous ex-husband (Matthew Modine) who stalks Isabel and Roxie after he finds that his wife has left him for Charles-Henri. His goal in stalking the innocent Roxie is never quite explained, and this storyline is perhaps the biggest, although not nearly the only, burden on the film.
“Le Divorce” has been represented in all of its advertising as a lighthearted romantic comedy, and this is more than misleading. Most moments that are supposed to be humorous fail, and those that succeed — thanks to Stockard Channing, Leslie Caron and Stephen Fry — are few and far between. In fact the film is as much drama as comedy, jumping between the two genres so often that it is hard to know how to classify it. Perhaps this kind of blend would be admirable if it were done seamlessly, but it is done haltingly and sloppily for the most part. This confusion, along with the jumble of characters and storylines, makes for a film that is too muddled to be taken lightly and too ridiculous to be taken seriously.