Le Divorce couldn't be more timely. On the tail end of the French bashing that surrounded the Iraq war comes a clever film that parses the dramatic cultural differences between America and France.
From the producer/ director team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, Le Divorce is set in a 21st century far from the linen parasols and teatimes of their usual historical dramas. But it is still resolutely fixated on manners. As much as The Remains of the Day or Howards End, Le Divorce shows how even the most abstract codes of conduct can wreak cruel emotional havoc on their practitioners and prey. Le Divorce suggests there is much truth in the belief that things like table manners were invented to keep people from knifing each other at dinner. The bourgeois French at the center of this drama fight like hellcats, they just do it beneath a cloak of decorous privilege, smiling through closed lips.
Le Divorce is narrated by a humorously newfangled innocent abroad, Isabel (Kate Hudson), who is more Santa Barbara mall rat than Daisy Miller. Hudson has inherited her mother Goldie Hawn's persona, defined by an archetypal California-style "it's all good" wholesome sexuality and wide-eyed lust for life. She employs that combination winningly as an American girl briefly intoxicated by the understated kink and idiosyncratic moral codes of French life.
Isabel has been dispatched by her family to watch over her freshly pregnant sister Roxy (Naomi Watts), a similarly gorgeous blond poet living in Paris with her young daughter and French painter husband Charles-Henri de Persand (Melvil Poupaud). As Isabel arrives, however, Charles-Henri is storming out, deserting Roxy for a wild-eyed Russian mistress who looks like a cross between Salma Hayek and Groucho Marx.
While Roxy drowns in justified rage and bitterness at her husband's desertion, Isabel is intoxicated by her exotic new surroundings. She embarks on a love affair with her married brother-in-law Edgar (Thierry Lhermitte), a superior right-wing politician who opposes abortion but relishes his many extramarital dalliances with a string of young women.
But Le Divorce's most compelling element is the way it cuts nastily to the heart of cultural differences between Americans and the French. Based on Diane Johnson's novel, with a screenplay by frequent Merchant/Ivory collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the film paints an eviscerating view of France as a deeply conservative society overlaid with a pretense of liberalism, where etiquette is a means of social control.
Roxy is far from the freewheeling, liberated California artist one might expect. She is opposed to the cavalier French approach to adultery and is determined to save her marriage even as her husband consults a divorce lawyer and begins to divvy up their property. "Why are adultery and fornication treated as the greatest joke on Earth?" she fumes during a Sunday lunch with her haughty in-laws, who are presided over by the regal, scheming matriarch Suzanne (Leslie Caron).
The de Persand clan seems barely interested in the rapidly dissolving marriage and a baby on the way. But they're unnaturally obsessed with how the couple's property will be divided, especially an oil painting owned by Roxy's family for generations, which her French relations would like to consider their rightful due. The divorce becomes a symbolic battle between American codes of morality, fairness and sporting behavior, and what Le Divorce suggests are French preferences for guile, pretense and good manners that disguise bad behavior and an antediluvian system rigged to support patriarchy and punish women.
In its first half, Le Divorce is what one expects of a Merchant Ivory production at its best -- a shrewd, eagle-eyed dissection of all the agendas and politics that play out in family living rooms and at dinner tables beneath a veneer of proper behavior.
Merchant/Ivory have updated their concerns without losing touch with the life's blood of their filmmaking. The movie has amusing moments when it wanders back into the traditions of the novel of manners, where small details convey a world of meaning. In Le Divorce, a Hermés Kelly bag speaks with the semiotic complexity of a carriage in Edith Wharton's novels. And the way Ivory arranges a montage of prissily dressed nouveau French cuisine says as much about how we cloak our human appetites and desires in controlled packaging as does a whalebone corset or a waltz.
In its awkward second half, the film becomes like Woody Allen in the noodley goofy mid-'90s phase of his career. It's a thrill-packed denouement that self- referentially winks at its own excesses even as it indulges in corny old Hollywood conventions of bad guys punished and order restored.
Problems with the thriller denouement are quibbles, however. When is the last time a film made one think about something as volatile but as fascinating as "national character"?