I'll say this for Le Divorce, it displays remarkable timing. Just when the centuries-long entente cordiale between the United States and France starts to show signs of wear and tear, along comes a movie that examines our friendly relationship through the prism of ' what else? ' l'amour. Based on a 1997 novel by Diane Johnson, Le Divorce is a romantic comedy of manners in which the French seem to have all the manners. That's right, they're the refined ones, we're the crude ones. They're the cynical ones, we're the naÃve ones. They're the behind-your-back ones, we're the in-your-face ones. It's a pair of stereotypes that goes back at least to the French and American revolutions, but Johnson gave them a mid-'90s spin ' pre-9/11, when the various ways a French woman tied her scarf still seemed of vital national interest.
If it seems less so today, we can nevertheless be grateful for any attempt to explain the French to us, or us to the French. Unfortunately, the movie version is a failed attempt ' a soufflÃ that falls to the bottom of the pan, gasping for air. The Merchant-Ivory team (James Ivory directing), which has had its ups and downs over the years, tends to stumble when adapting a contemporary novel. Remember Slaves of New York? Me neither. Remember A Room With a View? Me too. Period pieces are the team's natural milieu; all that Edwardian furniture gives them something to lean on. But Le Divorce needs to lift off the ground and float through the clouds on the strength of its own wit and charm. Oh, it has its moments, as when Stephen Fry shows up as an art dealer who's thoroughly enchanted with himself. Otherwise, we're grounded.
Kate Hudson is Isabel ' Johnson's nod to Isabel Archer in Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady. Except this Isabel doesn't meet a tragic end, unless you want to call Hudson's performance tragic. You certainly wouldn't call it comic. (When will directors realize that she doesn't have her mother's funny bone?) Newly arrived in Paris, Isabel falls in love with the place, and the place appears to fall in love with her. But that's only on the surface, where Americans dwell. Beneath the surface, where the French dwell, a storm is brewing. Isabel's sister, Roxie (Naomi Watts), has been abandoned by her French husband, and getting his upper-class family (led by Gigi herself, Leslie Caron) to acknowledge that anything's wrong is like trying to squeeze water from a rock: They just keep smiling, and Roxie winds up with blood on her hands.
Watts, who took everybody by surprise in Mulholland Drive, is miscast here ' too strong and sensible to play a woman who attempts suicide almost on a lark. Also miscast is Glenn Close, as an expatriate writer who really "gets" the French; with that preposterous wig and makeup, she looks like Susan Sontag doing Cruella De Vil. Also miscast is Matthew Modine, as a cuckolded husband who takes everybody hostage on top of the Eiffel Tower so that Le Divorce can have a big ol' American ending. (Let's face it: "Danger" is not Matthew Modine's middle name.) Finally, Hudson's misdirected, if not miscast, as a young woman who's seduced by la vie Parisienne. Early on, she doesn't seem innocent enough. Later on, she doesn't seem experienced enough. How can the French ever understand us if we don't even understand ourselves?