Ah, Paris — City of Light, of Love, of Liver Damage, and Lung Cancer. C’est formidable, non? Who in need of a posh vacation would turn down the opportunity to luxuriate in its finest hotels, to stuff oneself with sumptuous snails, and to work on a terribly flat romantic drama called Le Divorce? Well, as it turns out, nobody.
Based on the popular novel by Diane Johnson but clearly motivated by the desire to loiter along la Seine between shooting days, Le Divorce will take nearly two hours of your time. During this interval, you will observe Kate Hudson bobbing around being her cutesy one-note self as horny tourist Isabel Walker, while Naomi Watts — who at least tries to evolve her role beyond the hairstylist’s chair — portrays her freshly-dumped, pregnant sister Roxeanne de Persand. Both noteworthily blonde girls hail from Santa Barbara, where culture is nonexistent save for wealthy industry has-beens coasting into oblivion, so amongst the actual French people — who, curiously, inhabit large portions of France — the sisters have much to discover. Unfortunately, apart from some pretty locations and some unsatisfying murmurs about archaic European laws, the same cannot be said for the audience.
Wearing its pseudo-literary trappings on its sleeve with a Balzac reference here and an Emerson one there, this new effort from producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory (Howards End) quite surprisingly cannot be called pretentious, which is a shame, as some typical stuffier-than-thou tripe would have been to its advantage. Even as a modern French film, the amusing emphasis on urination is remarkably tame, limited to the benefits of asparagus as a diuretic and Isabel briefly sporting a pair of those disgusting yellow-stained jeans best described as “piss-washed.” Plus there’s Hudson’s slummy reworking of Mommy’s French sexcapades from Private Benjamin — herstory repeats and the world yawns. Indeed, the movie simply attempts to ply its ugly-ish Americans in Paris as a sort of lowbrow bridge, mixing and mingling with the locals and their crass televisions until all the characters end up seeming vaguely despicable, but not enough so to be fun.
The plot is a total pain, as it is simultaneously complicated and cliché-laden. Deep breath: As perky Isabel arrives in Paris intent on proving that she’s the autonomous opposite of the meek Isabel in The Portrait of a Lady, she crosses paths with Roxy’s pouty husband, Charles-Henri (Melvil Poupaud), who immediately ditches Roxy and their prop-like daughter Gennie (Esmee Buchet-Deak) plus their ever-expanding prosthetic fetus to go boink a hyperactive Russian freak named Magda (Rona Hartner), who in turn has ditched her insane American husband Tellman (Matthew Modine). Basically, most everything else involved has something to do with relations between the golly-shucks Walker family and la famille de Persand, who are a model of bewildering Gallic arrogance. What we learn from their interactions is that Americans are cheap and stupid, while the French are greedy and stupid. Here’s your New World Order.
But of course, a bunch of other characters are required in order to distract us from the inherent dullness of the primary players, so we get Glenn Close doing her best Susan Sontag as women’s-lit champion Olivia Pace, a part which ends up pitched much closer to Jenny Fields from her big-screen debut in The World According to Garp, right down to the chilly character buying herself a big house on the New England coast; seems like full-circle closure for the actress. When she’s not passing around the glycerin drops for a tearful poetry reading by Roxy, Pace immediately connects Isabel to smarmy errand-boy Yves (Romain Duris) as well as relating very closely to the waif’s fairly grotesque tryst with womanizing senator Edgar (Thierry Lhermitte), who just happens to be the uncle of Roxy’s estranged husband. No wonder the French smoke so much.
There’s also a subplot involving a painting of Saint Ursula, possibly a very valuable Latour, long an heirloom of the bumbling, unconvincing Walker family (Stockard Channing, Sam Waterston, Thomas Lennon — not a blond gene among them!), but now mixed up in the divorce proceedings with the snooty de Persands (Samuel Labarthe and the legendary Leslie Caron). Bless that painting, as it affords us a couple of brief cameo scenes from the inimitable Stephen Fry, playing a British art appraiser who’s capable of making boiled eggs seem amusing, all too temporarily lifting us from the stale melodrama.
At its best (which isn’t much), Le Divorce blusters along with the tolerable tedium of had-to-be-there home movies; at its worst (which is about 90 percent), it illustrates why them French went and invented the word merde. It’s a revoltingly insular and self-congratulatory movie, a poorly-written soap opera which cannot be redeemed even by its dainty settings. In fact, at a luncheon party midway, Leslie Caron discovers that the Beaufort has gone off, and instructs her guests to avoid consuming the bad cheese. I issue a similar warning.