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Le Divorce

Divorce as both a state of mind and a state of being — as well as the original legal process itself — permeates Le Divorce (2003), the film derived from the Diane Johnson novel by the adaptation-happy team of James Ivory, Ismail Merchant and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. In the film's main narrative thrust, Parisian-based American poet, mother and wife Roxy Walker (Naomi Watts) has been unceremoniously dumped by her French husband, with him seeking a divorce for apparently mercenary reasons, forcing Roxy to wend her way through the complex divorce laws of France. At the same time, both Roxy and her visiting sister, Isabel (Kate Hudson), are divorced from their own comfortable American culture of hamburgers and cartoons and the easy shedding of unwanted mates. And Isabel is metaphorically divorced from good sense when she seeks out an affair with the uncle of her brother-in-law, a prominent right-wing politician named Edgar Cosset (Thierry Lhermitte). Another expatriate American, Tellman (Matthew Modine) is divorced from reason, driven mad by the flagrant infidelity of his insane Russian wife — the same woman who has taken up with Roxy's spouse. Le Divorce constitutes the third of a loose trilogy of Parisian films by the Merchant-Ivory team, following the earlier Jefferson in Paris (1995) and A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries (1998), and it's certainly the most superficial of the trio, which was no great shakes to begin with. One supposes that Le Divorce is their way of taking up Jamesian themes by other means, after a succession some three adaptations of books by Henry James himself. But an unfunny script and a charmless cast hobble this modernizing of James's stories of pure Americans corrupted and confused by Continental practices. Blondes Hudson and Watts are very unlike the brunette beauties of the source-novel (supposedly Natalie Portman and Winona Ryder were originally slated for the film), and the rest of the characters are miscast, or at least inconsistent with each other and the suave ambiance of fine food and attention to accessories. Ultimately, the film is really about marketing, from the two blonde leading ladies posing on the box cover in their underwear (a situation that doesn't appear in the movie, of course), to the film's being conceived along the lines of a modern female weepy, with self-pity and noble women suffering at the hands of vile men as the order of the day, and its version of what Wayne and Garth call a mega-happy ending. A climactic revenge murder and subsequent hostage situation seems to be conceived for a wholly other kind of picture, and a subplot about a valuable painting has wandered in from the Michael Frayn novel on the next shelf over. The cast is peppered with Woody Allenish walk-ons from the likes of Jean-Marc Barr, Leslie Caron, Stockard Channing, Glenn Close, Stephen Fry, Bebe Neuwirth, and Sam Waterston (curiously, Waterston and Channing are stars in competing prime time TV shows). Fox's DVD release of Le Divorce offers a fine transfer in both anamorphic widescreen (2.40:1) and pan-and-scan on opposite sides of the disc. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is fine, if underused, and the film also is dubbed into French and Spanish (with English, French, and Spanish subtitles). Keep-case.
—D.K. Holm

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