The tagline on the poster for Le Divorce describes it as “A comedy of manners… both good and bad.” The only word that rings true, though, is “bad.” Le Divorce is a painfully dull, highly pretentious and shockingly incoherent mess of a movie. Le Divorce not only lacks a certain je nai sai quois, it lacks just about everything of cinematic value.
PG-13 for Mature thematic elements, sexual content
Based on Diane Johnson’s bestselling book, which has been praised as witty social commentary, the film version tries to tell the tale of Isabel (Kate Hudson, Almost Famous), a pretty young American blonde who goes to Paris to spend time with her pregnant sister, Roxy (Naomi Watts, Mulholland Dr.). Coincidentally, Isabel arrives just as Roxy’s husband, Charles-Henri (Melvil Poupaud, Le Ciel est a Nous), walks out on their marriage.
That distraction notwithstanding, no sooner does Isabel land in Paris than she finds herself in bed with a wild-haired and scruffy French artiste. But, even as they romp around in the sack, she’s distracted by the appearance of her 50-something uncle-in-law, Edgar (Thierry Lhermitte, Le Prof), on television.
Voila. Within a scant few scenes, Isabel takes on the role of Edgar’s mistress, complete with a welcome gift of a Kelly bag (an awesomely expensive purse, we quickly learn, named after the patron saint of purses, Grace Kelly).
Amidst Isabel’s sack-hopping, Roxy is stalked by her husband’s lover’s psychotic husband (Matthew Modine, Any Given Sunday) and has her entire Californian family visit her as they work tirelessly to ascertain the origins and value of a painting in Roxy’s possession.
This, folks, is supposed to be the stuff of some sort of high comedy. Laugh now because this is as good as it gets.
Under the leaden direction of 75-year-old James Ivory (A Room with a View), Le Divorce is a slow train ride through cinematic Hell that has the gall to end on a wistful note.
Working from a screenplay he co-wrote with his frequent collaborator, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, these cohorts in shame seem to have mistaken absurdity for hilarity in this stunningly unfunny disaster.
None of the characters have any real motivation and their emotions are pure artifice. Isabel’s artistic bed companion conveniently disappears from the limelight while she sleeps with Edgar. But, once that doomed affair falls by the wayside, the artist is once again back in her boudoir.
Even more jarring is the inexplicably over-the-top and irrational behavior of Modine’s jilted character. This man is abusive and offensive to all people he confronts and it’s played up for laughs. The only problem is it’s not funny. It’s disturbing.
What’s more disturbing is that the tag-team of Ismail Merchant and Ivory, purveyors of such fine snoozers as Howards End and Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, think they’ve got something funny going on here.
Charitably speaking, there are only two problems with Le Divorce: The characters and the story.
What makes the movie so frustrating is its absolute lack of sympathetic characters. Roxy comes close and Watts does her best to flesh out her character, but the rest of Roxy’s family is a bunch of smug Americans trying to carry on familial relations with a bunch of smug French upper crust snobs.
None of the characters are interesting or have anything worthwhile to say. They’re all pretentious, self-absorbed bores. Even Glenn Close (Fatal Attraction), decked out in scraggly hair and granny glasses, looks haggard by her efforts to make this empty material have resonance.
But wait. It gets worse. This alleged comedy set in Paris, the City of Love, doesn’t have a single romantic bone in its body. (Unless, of course, pre-meditated seduction via the showering of expensive gifts upon unwitting (and witless) young ladies by arrogant men of wealth is considered to be a romantic notion in this “enlightened” age.)
Another tagline for Le Divorce says, “Everything sounds sexier in French.” Quoi que. In the end, the film’s only real success is to remind the audience that at least we’ll always have Paris.
Merci beaucoup, Monsieur Ivory.