At first glance, it's easy to see what attracted the Merchant/Ivory team to the Diane Johnson novel--there's a good dose of Henry James in the story of expatriate Americans grappling with love and culture clash in present-day Paris. But the contemporary setting also avails itself to a kind of filmmaking that period films don't necessarily allow, namely the chance to exploit familiar emotions in the context of an unfamiliar environment. On the very day that free-spirited Southern California girl Isabel Walker (Kate Hudson) arrives in Paris to visit her pregnant poet sister Roxeanne (Naomi Watts), Roxeanne's husband Charles-Henri is walking out on her. Ironically, events soon conspire to entangle the two families far more than when the marriage was stable. At the heart of the matter is a painting, the ownership of which could conceivably become part of the divorce proceedings. Isabel, meanwhile, further complicates matters by undertaking an affair with Charles-Henri's uncle (Thierry Lhermitte), a right-wing politician, while the sisters' parents (Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston) prepare to do battle with Charles-Henri's mother (Leslie Caron) over the issue of the painting. On the periphery of this tragicomic circus is yet another expatriate American author (Glenn Close), a jilted (and very unstable) husband (Matthew Modine) and a wonderfully snooty auctioneer (Stephen Fry).
Cinematic attempts to dissect the complex Franco-American relationship, of course, are nothing new. Both French and American filmmakers have long obsessed over the peculiar love/hate dynamic that has held the two nations in an tense orbit for more than two centuries. But there is an incalculable sense of authenticity in "Le Divorce" that few previous films have been able to convey. It's clear that Ivory and co-writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (the Merchant/Ivory team's longtime secret weapon) understand and appreciate both points of view, even finding them trivial in their parochialism. But those feelings never unduly affect the performances--there's scarcely a line that isn't delivered with the casual comfort of an offhand remark, hardly a scene that doesn't feel as relaxed and spontaneous as real life. Even the film's risky mingling of tragedy with humor has the ring of honesty.
Audiences accustomed to the ham-fisted bravura of blockbuster filmmaking won't necessarily appreciate the subtlety of Ivory's direction--acting, cinematography, editing, music, set design, costume and sound are all used to maximum effect, yet integrated so seamlessly as to be virtually invisible. It's a confirmation that Ivory and Merchant remain at the very top of their game, even if the rest of Hollywood hasn't yet grown up enough to fully appreciate it. Starring Kate Hudson, Naomi Watts, Leslie Caron, Stockard Channing, Glenn Close, Stephen Fry, Thierry Lhermitte, Matthew Modine, Bebe Neuwirth and Sam Waterston. Directed by James Ivory. Written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and James Ivory. Produced by Ismail Merchant and Michael Schiffer. A Fox Searchlight release. Comedy. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements and sexual content. Running time: 115 min