Kate Hudson as Isabel Walker
Naomi Watts as Roxeanne de Persand
Leslie Caron as Suzanne de Persand
Stockard Channing as Margeeve Walker
Glenn Close as Olivia Pace
Stephen Fry as Piers Janely
Thomas Lennon as Roger Walker
Thierry Lhermitte as Edgar Casson
Matthew Modine as Tellman
Bebe Neuwirth as Julia Manchevering
Sam Waterston as Chester Walker
“Le Divorce” takes a wonderful cast, which performs brilliantly, a clever tale of love and adultery, based on a bestselling book by Diane Johnson, sets it all in Paris, where charm and seduction ooze out of every lovingly filmed street and café, and still manages to fall somehow flat.
“Le Divorce” wants to be a French movie, bitterly amusing and terribly cynical and sophisticated. Instead, it veers between being two very different, very American movies. One is a charming, innocent comedy starring the impossibly luminous Isabel Walker (Kate Hudson), a naïve young woman engaged in a series of romantic misadventures in Paris. The other movie is a tragic, painful exploration of love and betrayal, in which Isabel’s pregnant sister, abandoned wife Roxie De Persand (Naomi Watts) spends most of her time on the brittle edge of bursting into tears.
It is not the fault of these two women or, indeed, of any of the immensely talented cast, all of whom put in fine performances, that the movie ultimately fails to stitch itself together. The real problem is that these two movies cannot coexist, or at least cannot coexist comfortably. Screwball comedies should not suddenly veer into ponderous tragedy; deep emotional explorations should not be punctuated by slapstick; and both comedy and tragedy require a lighter touch and a finer sense of timing than Mr. Ivory’s direction seems able to provide.
Early on, at their weekly Sunday family dinner in the country, Roxie’s French in-laws delightedly recount the latest American political scandal, the publication of a Senator’s diaries, complete with detailed descriptions of affairs with each of his secretaries, called only by number (S1, S2, S3, and so forth) and a ludicrous attempt at discretion. Roxie finally explodes in pain and anger, demanding to know why people think infidelity is funny. Her in-laws exchange knowing glances and assure her that, of course, she is right, there is nothing funny about adultery. “Le Divorce” is correct both times: the scene of French aristocrats gleefully dissecting the American scandal (and the hapless Senator’s writing style) is very amusing, and Roxie’s pain is equally real and valid. But the movie never quite clues us in on where we are supposed to stand, encouraging the viewer first to laugh with the De Persands, and then to feel Roxie’s outrage at their callousness, but only rarely challenging either itself or the viewer to wonder we laughed in the first place.
This creates a number of painfully awkward scenes. Matthew Modine as the jealous husband of Roxie’s husband’s new girlfriend, who begins to stalk Roxie and Isabel in an effort to enlist them in his revenge, is both a pathetic figure of fun and a genuinely creepy, menacing figure. Isabel’s growth from naïve American girl to sophisticated French woman under the tutelage of Edgar Casson (Thierry Lhermitte) is both amusing and deeply cringe-inducing. Isabel is charmingly shy in her first awkward visit to Edgar’s apartment, carefully arranging herself on the loveseat and sneaking her bra padding back into her purse when her soon-to-be lover gets up to get them drinks. It is cute and funny, or it would be if we were not continually slapped in the face with the reminder that every infidelity has silent, innocent victims like Roxie, her daughter, and their unborn child. When Edgar tells Isabel, after their first night together, that many French women drink a certain kind of tea before making love in order to “perfume their juices,” some viewers laugh at the pot of tea Isabel begins to brew in the next scene. Others might wonder what could possibly be wrong with Kate Hudson’s juices, and what kind of man would make her question their perfume. It is clear that Isabel will exit the relationship a sadder, wiser woman; that “Le Divorce” seems to view her new sophistication as an improvement that is worth the pain is a questionable attitude that is never really challenged.
A third movie does occasionally surface, this one a smart, bittersweet comedy of the exquisite agony of love. The older, more experienced women in Isabel’s life can track the course of her supposedly secret affair by the gifts Edgar gives her, in particular an expensive red handbag from Hermes that he always gives his mistresses at the beginning of his relationship. (Hermes is the only person Edgar has ever been faithful to, says his sister.) As the cynical and charming Edgar Casson, a noted French politician and the uncle of Roxie’s unfaithful husband, Mr. Lhermitte has just the right touch of sophistication and sexy worldliness. Glenn Close, as a noted American expatriate author and one of Edgar’s first mistresses, brings an air of sad, knowing humor to her scenes with Isabel and especially to her scenes with Edgar. A moment when they are both in the Hermes shop, each buying a present for Isabel, is exactly what the movie should have been more often: both bittersweet and funny, yet for once not at the expense of the characters’ genuine pain.
Likewise, a long, involved subplot about a possibly valuable painting in Roxie’s possession has little to do with divorce and adultery, but is also the excuse for some of the most enjoyable scenes in the movie. Stephen Fry and Bebe Neuwirth do clever turns as, respectively, a very English appraiser from Christies and a passionate curator from the Getty Museum. Stockard Channing, Sam Waterston, and Thomas Lennon as the rest of Isabel and Roxie’s family come to France near the end of the movie to protect the painting from being swept up in the divorce settlement, and their dead on, funny, and honest responses to France and the French bring a breath of life back into the movie, which has become hopelessly mired in its own emotional baggage.
Individual scenes are in turn funny or tragic, individual performances are brilliant and clever, and the entire movie takes full advantage of the charm of Paris, as the camera lingers on perfect plates of food, lively outdoor markets, and bustling Parisian streets. But in the end the pieces of “Le Divorce” are neither amusing enough nor moving enough to create a movie that is anywhere near the sum of its parts.