The cultural rift between America and France gets a timely spin from producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who turn Diane Johnson’s vibrant 1997 novel into a bonbon spiked with delicious wit and malice.
Kate Hudson is a firecracker as Isabel, a California girl new to Paris. Her mission? To help her stepsister Roxy (Naomi Watts), a poet whose French husband, Charles-Henri (Melvil Poupaud), has run off with another woman, leaving Roxy with their daughter and a baby on the way. Paris gets to Isabel. She becomes the mistress of Edgar (Thierry Lhermitte), a right-wing politician in his sixties. As ex-pat American writer Olivia Pace (Glenn Close) tells Isabel, “It’s like fornicating with God.”
Roxy, beautifully played by the radiant Watts, must deal with Charles-Henri’s formidable mother, Suzanne (a superb Leslie Caron), and the French legal system, which favors her husband in the divorce and in a custody battle over the painting Roxy brought to Paris from home. It may be worth millions. That brings Roxy and Isabel’s parents (Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston) in on the next jet.
Ivory, who co-wrote the deft script with Jhabvala, has great fun throwing these two screwy worlds together until they fizz. The only misstep, shared with the book, is the character of the jealous husband (Matthew Modine) — Charles-Henri stole his wife — which leads to a violent scene on the Eiffel Tower that disrupts the film’s delicate balance. Otherwise, Le Divorce — acted with relish by a note-perfect cast — is a romantic comedy of true sophistication. There’s a sting in every laugh.