Left to right: Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts play American sisters in Paris in Le Divorce. Courtesy photo
'Le Divorce' provides a mammoth opportunity to explore the meaning of family values on two continents

A recent review of the French import Swimming Pool went to some facetious lengths to wonder how the film might be received by that noted Francophile, George W. Bush. If he had waited a few weeks, the critic would have found a film much more likely to intrigue the leader of the free world. Even if the President might need an aide to help him with some of the nuances, Le Divorce features twice as many pretty ladies and oodles more opportunities to mock our Gallic neighbors. And for the rest of us, there is the delicious irony that the best anti-Frog zinger comes from Stockard Channing, currently famous for playing the wife of that other "fictitious President," the one on The West Wing.

The plot, you see, is basically a mammoth opportunity to explore the meaning of family values on two continents. Isabel Walker (Hudson) has come to visit her sister Roxeanne (Watts) in gay Paree. Just as the taxi delivers Isabel at her sister's doorstep, though, Roxy's French husband Charles-Henri (Melvil Poupaud) is walking out on her for another woman. He intends to divorce her, but Roxy's not having it; only after reconciliation proves impossible does she loosen her grip on Yankee morality and allow his lawyers to start the proceedings.

The truly shocking thing, though, has nothing to do with infidelity. While Roxy is clearly the wronged party, Charles-Henri and the French legal code agree that he is entitled to half of her property, including a painting that may or may not be a valuable lost canvas by Georges de La Tour. His upper-crust family members, who maintain an air of civility and even sympathy toward their soon-to-be ex-daughter-in-law (and who need a few dollars from the sale of a rare painting as little as they need another variety of oddball cheese at lunch) maintain that while this is a shame, it's the law, and disagreeing would be unseemly.

Le Divorce
Dir. James Ivory; writ. Diane Johnson (novel), Ruth Prawer Jhabvala; feat. Naomi Watts, Kate Hudson, Leslie Caron, Romain Duris, Stephen Fry, Samuel Labarthe, Stockard Channing, Glenn Close, Thierry Lhermitte (PG-13)
Meanwhile, Charles-Henri's aging bachelor uncle has made a plaything of Isabel. (How's this for a line, delivered over a haute cuisine first date: "Now. We must decide if you will become my mistress.") But she already has a scruffy new boyfriend - and a job working for a famous expatriate novelist. Inter-familial complications, as one might guess, begin to pile up, and that's without considering the estranged and deranged husband of Charles-Henri's new love.

The actors are charming and lovely to watch, as are the predictably tasteful French settings. This is a Merchant-Ivory film, after all, the highbrow cinematic equivalent of a "(Don't you) Wish You Were Here" postcard. At its most entertaining, the film presents some intriguing clashes of values; still, there is a nagging feeling that the movie's insights into national psychologies aren't anywhere near as generalizable as the filmmakers seem to think. To begin with the obvious, the Walker sisters have some straight-laced notions that are hardly universally held by their real-world counterparts.

But it all makes for fairly lightweight fun - if not all that memorable - more like a typical American sight-seeing vacation than the life-changing living-abroad episodes that crop up so frequently in the Merchant-Ivory filmography. Like the painting around which so much of the action revolves, it may not be the real thing, but it's nice to look at. •


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