After taking a three-week break from the project, Ten Years Ago: Films in Retrospective is back up and running! Welcoming you all back is Bri Lafond giving a second look to the Merchant Ivory film that, according to her, disallowed her from making any “Movie Night Selections” among her friends for quite some time.
Le Divorce (2003)
By Bri Lafond
Merchant Ivory Productions: the name evokes staid British sensibilities; it suggests drawing room dramas and tales of the ebb and flow of English colonial influence. The independent production house is primarily known for its adaptations of classic British literature, such as Henry James’ The Bostonians (1984), E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View (1985) andHoward’s End (1992), and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1993). In 2003, they tackled an American novel that follows a pair of American sisters in Paris: Diane Johnson’sLe Divorce.
In 2003, I was still much in my horizon-expanding phase when it came to film. If it was an independent or foreign production, I was there. I saw advertisements for Le Divorce, and the name “Merchant Ivory” caught my eye. As little as I knew about film at the time, I knew that Merchant Ivory was kind of a big deal, so I dragged a few of my friends to a limited-release screening, thinking we were in for a real treat.
I didn’t get to pick a movie for movie night for a solid year afterwards. Any time I suggested to my group of friends that we might go see such-and-such movie, I would have Le Divorcethrown back in my face.
And I can’t really blame my friends for doing so. Neither they nor I were the intended audience for this movie: a rather lukewarm romantic comedy with few laughs and a dash of French worship. Indeed, Le Divorce is by no stretch of the imagination a good movie; though, re-viewing it for the site this week, I don’t think it’s quite as horrifically bad as I initially perceived it to be.
Le Divorce stars Kate Hudson as Isabel Walker, a young and impetuous woman visiting her married and pregnant sister Roxanne (played by Naomi Watts) in Paris. As soon as Isabel arrives, all sorts of shenanigans take place: Roxy’s husband leaves her for a wacky Russian woman who speaks like a baby robot; Isabel begins an affair with said husband’s Uncle Edgar (Thierry Lhermitte) who happens to be a high-profile right-wing politician; and the husband’s family, including its matron Suzanne (Leslie Caron), begin maneuvering to get ahold of a Walker family heirloom: a painting of St. Ursula supposedly done by George La Tour. Roxy refuses to begin divorce proceedings against her husband which is apparently problematic under French law where the partner who files must prove themselves the injured party; and so begins the first of many interludes where the audience gets to learn about the intricacies of French divorce law, including the fact that pregnant Roxy is not allowed to re-marry under French law until after she gives birth.
Meanwhile, Isabel’s affair with Edgar is quickly revealed to everyone when she receives the gift of an expensive Hermes Kelly bag from him. Apparently the very sight of a Kelly bag on a young woman like Isabel broadcasts not only the fact that she is definitely having an affair with an “older French man with certain tastes” but Edgar’s entire family and former lovers (including a fantastic-looking Glenn Close as an expat author-friend of the Walker girls) are able to figure out that it’s Edgar himself.
And while all of that is going on, the wacky Russian woman’s spurned American husband (Matthew Modine) is harassing Isabel and Roxy for no discernible reason.
Everything collides when Isabel and Roxy’s parents (Sam Waterston and Stockard Channing) and brother (Thomas Lennon) come to Paris to comfort Roxy, but mainly to make sure no one gets ahold of the La Tour. The spurned American husband ends up chasing down Isabel and her mother on top of the Eiffel Tower with a gun only to reveal that he has murdered Roxy’s estranged husband. For no apparent reason, he gives the gun to Isabel, tells her to put it in her Kelly bag and to throw it off the tower. The Kelly bag then turns into a magic flying CGI wonder and flies all over Paris as the movie wraps up: Isabel breaks up with Edgar and hooks up with a more age-appropriate and idealistic young Frenchman, Roxy doesn’t have to file for divorce since her husband has been conveniently murdered, and the La Tour is sold at auction for an obscene amount of money.
The main problem with Le Divorce is that it’s trying to do too much with too little. The plot is fairly straightforward, albeit twofold: Roxy’s husband leaves her for another married woman and the drama ensues from two couples breaking up, and Isabel’s dalliance with Edgar plays out the uneven power dynamics between an older more experienced married man and a naive young woman looking for adventure. The drama of the painting is thrown in, but one often loses sight of it as the film progresses: the Getty wants to borrow the La Tour, so a curator (Bebe Neuwirth) comes out to evaluate the painting, but this point is forgotten until the film’s ending auction scene when Neuwirth pops back up to win the auction.
Another big problem for me is Naomi Watts. I normally adore her (Mulholland Drive is fantastic), but she is so staid and stiff in her role as Roxy. Roxy is supposed to be an idealistic poet who ran off to France on a whim and ended up with her free-spirited artist husband, but there’s no trace of that artistic spirit as Watts plays her. There’s a scene where Roxy is asked to read a poem by Anne Bradstreet at a bookstore because, as Glenn Close’s character puts it, “only a poet can read poetry properly,” and I snorted: Watts reads the poem flatly, brings nothing to it, and the audience in the bookstore is brought to tears. Very much a case of telling, not showing; or, rather, of telling, and then showing the audience a lie.
As I’ve said, Le Divorce isn’t a good movie, but it’s not necessarily a bad one either. The movie overall is mostly style with very little substance.
Isabel arrives at the airport carrying the most ridiculous hippie purse I have ever seen: brown suede with ribbons of suede brushing down to the floor. It seems highly impractical and likely to be filthy. Of course, in retrospect, I think they made this purse so over-the-top so as to clash with the Kelly bag she receives later in the film.
Isabel goes to stay at her sister’s apartment and is put up in “the old maid’s quarters”: a sizeable loft with a window overlooking the city. Roxy apologizes for how small everything is. Look, I’ve seen enough House Hunters International to know that this apartment would cost a couple of million dollars, easy: you’re not fooling anyone with your “cramped” talk.
This movie is OBSESSED with France. There’s the talk about French law, particularly French divorce law, which fits into the plot somewhat, but everything is “the French do it this way” or “the French do that.” Glenn Close’s character claims to want to write a book on the customs of French women: “Their scarves alone would make for an entire chapter.” The film then proceeds to treat us to a parade of women illustrating the various scarf-wearing styles of Parisian women.
Roxy’s husband is a one-dimensional asshole, but he’s played off as “just French.” He leaves his wife and daughter with no notice, makes a scene in front of said daughter, claims that Roxy “should understand” because she’s “a poet,” and that he needs to be with the Russian baby-robot woman for his “art.” Blah.
Isabel starts going on elaborate lunch dates with Edgar, thus beginning the major sub-theme of food porn that runs throughout the movie. We’re talking balls to the wall meats and cheeses and sauces and little plates made out of hardened caramel.
It’s at one of these lunches that Edgar finally propositions her in the line used in all the trailers for this movie: “Now we must decide if you will become my mistress.” This is not awkward at all. (*eyeroll*)
One of the other big tropes of the movie is money and how rich people spend it. Once Isabel makes the decision to become Edgar’s mistress, she goes and buys lots of fancy French lingerie. It’s at this point that Edgar sends the ridiculously expensive Kelly bag which signals to Roxy that Isabel must be having an affair. After Roxy warns her sister that a man will have certain expectations if she accepts the bag, Isabel announces: “It’s a present, not a payment.” Classy.
Roxy half-heartedly attempts suicide by slitting her wrists. This comes out of nowhere and the film promptly forgets that it happens. However, one of the better ridiculous lines occurs because of it. Throughout the movie, the Walkers—especially Isabel—are fond of reminding everyone that they’re from Santa Barbara. The words “Santa Barbara” are uttered again and again and again for no discernible reason. The best use of this is when Isabel admonishes her sister for attempting suicide: “What about Genni? [Roxy’s daughter] What about everyone in Santa Barbara?” Indeed. What about everyone in Santa Barbara?
The spurned husband really does tidy things up nicely for everyone. Roxy doesn’t have to betray her principles by filing for divorce and the shock of seeing her dead husband shocks her into an early labor. She should send him a fruit basket or something.
When the La Tour finally goes up for auction (and, as far as I recall, no one actually 100% verifies that it’s a La Tour; Stephen Fry shows up, Britishes about for a bit, says it’s really a La Tour (despite the fact that a representative from the Louvre and a team at the Getty had their doubts about its authenticity) then all of a sudden it’s up for auction as the genuine artifact), I can tell the mood is supposed to be exciting, but I just can’t bring myself to care. Some rich people are going to be a little more rich; this painting has only been a sub-plot at best; people just died: Why do I care about who gets the painting?
Oh, this is why I care: Bebe Neuwirth wins the auction and the painting is going back to the United States! U-S-A! U-S-A!
I still want to know what happened to that Kelly bag. Is it still flying around Paris with an empty gun inside of it? Was it only metaphorically flying and the police returned it to Isabel after the investigation? So many unanswered questions.