For my money, Le Divorce (2003) is one of the better Woody Allen films not made by Allen. It is in fact made by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory – the powerhouse filmmaking duo behind such hits like A Room with A View (1985), Howards End (1992), and The Remains of the Day (1993). In retrospect, Le Divorce feels very much like the European-set films Allen would start making a couple of years later. It is set in the upper crust of society and features artists and intellectuals and those around them dealing with troubled relationships and dysfunctional families. In other words, prime Allen material.
Merchant Ivory landed a huge casting coup with Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts, the former still enjoying buzz from her breakout role in Almost Famous (2000), and the latter with Mulholland Drive (2001). Unfortunately, audiences and critics weren’t taken with the film’s charms and it underperformed at the box office and received scathing notices but I’ve always enjoyed its light, comedic touch with unexpected dramatic moments even if it does suffer from a weak ending.
Isabel Walker (Hudson) arrives in Paris to visit her sister Roxeanne (Watts), a poet who is pregnant when we meet her and has also been abandoned by her husband Charles-Henri de Persand (Melvil Poupaud) for another woman. Thankfully, Isabel has arrived just in time to console her and provide support while also starting an affair with Charles-Henri’s mother’s dashing brother-in-law Edgar (Thierry Lhermitte) who is rich and also married, but as Roxy tells her, the French have a carefree attitude towards infidelity. The rest of the film plays out the aftermath of Roxy and Charles-Henri’s break-up and the ramifications for those close to them in expected and unexpected ways.
Naomi Watts gets the thankless role of the spurned woman who is miserable for most of the film as she rails against a society with sexist attitudes towards divorce, which rightly infuriates Roxy. Coming off of the 2002 English language remake of the Japanese horror film Ringu (1998) and going on to make the gritty drama 21 Grams (2003), she displayed quite an impressive range during this period (and continues to do so). Roxy is going through a turbulent period what with her pregnancy and the divorce and Watts does an excellent job portraying the jumble of emotions her character is experiencing on a daily basis.
Le Divorce explores the dynamic between Isabel and Roxy with the former being young and impulsive while the latter is older and more experienced. Over the course of the film we become sympathetic to Roxy’s plight and disapproving of Isabel’s affairs because we know they will inevitably end badly and she doesn’t have the emotional maturity to handle it. The filmmakers don’t judge her (or anyone for that matter) and instead leave it up to the viewer to make up their own mind.
After Almost Famous, Kate Hudson appeared in a series of romantic comedies with varying degrees of success and so appearing in Le Divorce makes sense. Her role sees Isabel torn between two Frenchmen, allowing the actress to mix comedy with drama in a way that her Hollywood movies didn’t. Critics complained of the lack of chemistry with Watts but I think they play well off each other. Isabel acts as the audience surrogate and we are introduced to French culture through her experiences. She turns out to be a good study, quickly adopting two lovers at the same time.
The always-watchable Glenn Close steals scenes as Olivia Pace, an American author who lives in Paris and hires Isabel to get her affairs in order. The veteran actress makes the most of her screen-time, especially early on when Olivia tells Isabel about her fascination with French women and how she’d love to write a book about them and their customs: “Their scarves alone – an entire chapter.” She narrates a brief montage of the various ways French women wear their scarves. Close does such a great job of creating an intriguing character that I’d love to see her be the focus of her own film.
In a genius bit of casting, Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston – both of whom have appeared in Allen films – play Roxy and Isabel’s parents with The State’s Thomas Lennon as their uptight brother. Their scenes are the most reminiscent of Allen’s films as they obsess over a family painting of Saint Ursula that may or may not have been painted Georges de la Tour that Roxy brought with her to France and Charles-Henri’s parents want to claim as partially their own.
Matthew Modine pops up intermittently throughout Le Divorce as a creepy stalker type whose motives aren’t immediately clear but his abrasive behavior has a jarring effect that threatens to break the spell that Merchant Ivory have worked hard to maintain. He eventually upsets the film’s tone at the climactic scene where the filmmakers lose their collective minds and the plot as if they couldn’t figure out how to end things and tacked on one borrowed from an American thriller.
Diane Johnson wrote Le Divorce after hearing many stories in Paris about American women who came to France and married Frenchmen only for their relationships to break up. Published in 1997, it went on to become a best-seller. The city of Paris had always been a special place for Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. Ivory had been traveling to the city for more than 50 years. He even owned an apartment with Merchant in Paris and their production company had an office located there. Merchant said, “I think that Paris has played a very special part in our lives.”
They bought the rights to her novel after she had written a screenplay for Ivory’s production company. She was asked to adapt her own novel and rewrote the ending, something that arose from Disneyland in Paris refusing them to film the climactic scene there. Merchant invited the deputy mayor of Paris to lunch and convinced him to empty out the Eiffel Tower on short notice but only between the hours of 6:30 and 9:30 in the morning. Ironically, during filming, a holdup took place at the American Express in Disneyland with hostages being taken.
Ivory was able to cast his first two choices – Glenn Close and Kate Hudson with the former being someone he wanted to work with for 20 years and the latter he considered the quintessential California girl, which was ideal for the part. The most challenging role to cast was that of Roxy. Many actresses were asked but none of them were interested because, according to Ivory, “I thought it was because they had to go around playing pregnant for two-thirds of the movie, crying and slashing their wrists and things.” After seeing Mulholland Drive, Ivory sent Naomi Watts a copy of the script. She identified with the character because she claimed to have “always felt like an outsider,” growing up in a family that moved around frequently and so she never felt like she “belonged anywhere.”
Le Divorce received mixed to negative reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “Le Divorce doesn’t work on its intended level, because we don’t care enough about the interactions of the enormous cast. But it works in another way, as a sophisticated and knowledgeable portrait of values in collision.” In his review for The New York Observer, Andrew Sarris wrote, “The film’s greatest achievement, however, is in keeping a dizzying variety of characters at odds with each other without any breach of good manners, and without descending to facile stereotypes and caricatures.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “C” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “I’m disappointed to report that Hudson and Watts have no chemistry as sisters, perhaps because Watts never seems like the expatriate artiste she’s supposed to be playing.” The New York Times’ A.O. Scott wrote, “As it is, Le Divorce is tasteful, but almost entirely without flavor. It is tough work to sit through a comedy made by filmmakers with so little sense of timing and no evident sense of humor. What’s French for annulment?” USA Today gave the film two-and-a-half out of four stars and Claudia Puig wrote, “It is so cliché to end this cosmopolitan tale of families attempting to cross a cultural divide in the cheap, derivative and violent manner of a bad American action flick.” In her review for the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday wrote, “But Le Divorce is essentially the story of two sisters, and this is where the movie fatally breaks down, mostly due to an off-kilter performance by Watts…Hudson does her best to carry her co-star but – through no fault of her own – doesn’t fare much better.”
Le Divorce explores the clash of cultures as Roxy and Isabel try to understand Charles-Henri and his family’s attitudes towards love, marriage and relationships. They quickly learn that the French have a certain kind of detachment when it comes to the end of a relationship. It seems as if they fall in and out of love with ease whereas Roxy still has feelings for her husband because he’s the father of their child and unborn child. Isabel tries her hand at European-style relationships and enjoys herself initially but soon finds it all a bit messy emotionally.
Since Roxy is the film’s protagonist, we are meant to empathize with her. Charles-Henri’s cruel treatment of her makes him the obvious antagonist until the film’s climax when Merchant Ivory pull the rug out from under the audience and get him out of the way a little too neatly, replacing him with Modine’s spurned husband. That being said, two-thirds of Le Divorce takes a delightful, engaging look at French culture via fine art, cuisine, fashion, and architecture, transporting the audience to Paris for two hours. Director James Ivory uses Paris quite effectively with its colorful streets full of restaurants, cafes and bookstores as a backdrop for the colorful characters that populate the film. Unlike Woody Allen’s superior Midnight in Paris (2011), however, it doesn’t end on a satisfying note. It doesn’t follow through in a way that remains true to what came before, which is a shame because it has so much going for it.
Chautard, Andre. “It’s Divorce, Parisian Style.” Los Angeles Times. August 5, 2003.
Entertainment News Service. “Americans in Paris.” Chicago Tribune. August 8, 2003.
Hohenadel, Kristin. “Californians in Paris; Merchant Ivory, Too.” The New York Times. September 8, 2002.
Kehr, Dave. “Merchant-Ivory Eiffel.” The New York Times. August 8, 2003.