Saucy is not a word that springs to mind in relation to the stately Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala franchise. Still, on the evidence of their new film, taking this period-obsessed trio out of the hushed, brocaded drawing rooms of the past and into a more pop present brings a touch of sorely needed pep and froth to an oeuvre becalmed in solemn good taste. Not that taste is lacking in Le Divorce, but the time is the present, the setting Paris, and the place settings and sculpted food have a heady contempo feel. Adapted from Diane Johnson's smart if overpraised 1994 roman à clef about a young Californian woman's brief encounter with haute Parisian mores, Le Divorce—in substance if not in style—is entirely consistent with the Merchant-Ivory mission to explore the clash between old and new worlds, between tenaciously held tradition and the careless freedoms of modernity.
Johnson's book turns on the friction between brash American idealism and impatience with convention on the one hand, and the French insistence on order and etiquette no matter what hanky-panky goes on behind the scenes. Her heroine, Isabel Walker—a sly update of Isabel Archer in Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady—is a modern, independent young American woman who finds herself adrift in a European culture that has nimbly adjusted centuries-old traditions to suit its racy lifestyle. Here, Isabel (Kate Hudson) gets off a plane in Paris jauntily attired in jeans, a loose top and flyaway curls, and haloed in a buttery light that bespeaks her origins in Santa Barbara, the very antithesis of Paris' low-key, blue-gray elegance. Psyched for a happy reunion with her half-sister Roxeanne (Naomi Watts), a moody poet who's pregnant with a second child by her Gallicly handsome husband, Charles-Henri de Persand (Melvil Poupaud), Isabel is shocked to find Roxeanne reeling from that rascal's abrupt and unexplained departure. As she struggles to prop up her sister and care for her little niece, Isabel finds herself increasingly enmeshed with Charles-Henri's coolly aristocratic family, headed by his mother, Suzanne, who's played by a suitably refined Leslie Caron and who will sacrifice much—and many—on the altar of face maintenance. Their relationship is complicated by Isabel's affair with Suzanne's married brother, Edgar Cosset (Thierry Lhermitte), a suave diplomat known around town for ushering in every new extramarital affair by giving his lover one of those expensive, bright-red purses named after Grace Kelly.
Before you can say Hermès, Isabel is sporting a sleek new Parisian haircut and the requisite pricey scarf thrown around the neck with studied carelessness. Ignoring the warnings of her sister and her boss, a savvy American writer (wittily played by Glenn Close as an amalgam of Susan Sontag and Mary McCarthy), Isabel dives headfirst into the unaccustomed role of mistress, even as she joins her own family (Sam Waterston and a very good Stockard Channing play the parents) in fighting the de Persands for possession of a Walker family heirloom, a painting of St. Ursula, patron saint of young girls. This may be more feistiness than Hudson can carry: The young actress has her mother's fizzy charm, but lacks the manic dissident energy of early Goldie Hawn. Still, Hudson coasts along pleasantly enough, keeping faith with the overall tone of airy weightlessness. For a movie that boasts a murder, a would-be suicide and the usual generous helping of screwing around à la français, Le Divorce is remarkably calm and contained even as it builds to its climax, a hostage taking at the top of the Eiffel Tower that hews closer to farce than to the thrills it's meantto generate.
In the end, Johnson's book, in a cunning reversal of the tragic fate of the Jamesian heroine—what American woman would today allow herself to become a victim of European etiquette?—opts for some shamelessly gratifying boosterism for the American way of cultural combat. To this conclusion Ivory pays his respects, but as so often happens in a Merchant-Ivory movie, the big picture gets lost in the furnishings. One walks away from Le Divorce remembering not so much Isabel in her hard-won wisdom and independence as the image of a Kelly bag floating over the rooftops of Paris in goofy, if irrelevant, homage to the beloved French children's movie The Red Balloon.
Le Divorce was directed by James Ivory; written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Ivory based on the novel by Diane Johnson; and stars Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts. Now playing at Edwards South Coast Village, Santa Ana.