...the ending does nothing to dispel the feeling that one has just wasted 117 minutes of one's life on empty gestures.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

On the back of the keep case, movie critic Rex Reed is quoted as saying that "Le Divorce" is "a hip, romantic comedy." Knowing absolutely nothing about the film going in and noting that it co-starred Kate Hudson, I initially assumed it was, indeed, a romantic comedy.

Then I read the box credits and saw that the film was directed by James Ivory and produced by Ismail Merchant, the team that gave us "The Bostonians," "A Room With a View," "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge," "Howard's End," "The Remains of the Day," "Jefferson in Paris," and "Surviving Picasso." So I wondered if it weren't really something more weighty, a serious and somber drama perhaps.

In both cases, nothing like.

"Le Divorce" can hardly be called romantic because there are no romances involved, unless you count a man running out on his pregnant wife and three-year-old child for an airheaded floozy romantic or a woman having quickie affairs romantic. And it can hardly be called comedy because there's nothing in it that's vaguely funny, unless you count attempted suicide, murder, and well-meaning but insulting type casts funny. Which left me with the drama angle, but the movie's characters and situations are so clichéd and so lightweight, it can hardly be called dramatic, either. In the end, I just found it slow, empty, and boring.

Along with Ms. Hudson, the movie stars the inimitable Naomi Watts, another reason for thinking the picture was going to be serious. Maybe it's both; maybe it's a dark, serious, ironic comedy that totally eluded me. I dunno. In any case, Hudson and Watts play sisters, one an out-of-work American, Isabel Walker (Hudson), who flies to Paris to be with her sister, Roxeanne de Persand (Watts), an unpublished poet who is having a baby. But no sooner does Isabel arrive than we see Roxeanne's husband leaving her and their little girl, Gennie, bag and baggage. The rest of the movie involves our meeting Roxeanne's ex in-laws and watching Isabel's several affairs. Most of it is dispiriting, despite the talents of the two leads and the famous names in the largely unused supporting cast.

Everyone is beautiful in this film, and everyone is stereotyped. Obviously, the sisters are beautiful, and each is smart, and each is talented, and each is sophisticated. Roxeanne, whose ex-husband is a struggling painter, lives in a picturesque French apartment whose upstairs windows look out over all of Paris. The sisters' mom and dad, Chester and Margeeve Walker, played by Sam Waterston and Stockard Channing, are beautiful and sophisticated, living in a beautiful and sophisticated Southern California beachfront house. He's a college professor, so they must have inherited the house. Roxeanne's mother-in-law, Suzanne de Persand, played by Leslie Caron of "Gigi" fame, is beautiful and sophisticated and aristocratic, living in a house the size of a castle. I suppose it is a castle, a chateau.

It's hard to tell in this film where the main plot ends and the subplots begin because there isn't much main plot to begin with. Roxeanne's husband runs off with a woman named Magda (Rona Hartner), and Magda's lovesick husband (Matthew Modine) goes around the bend looking for her. Roxeanne tries to kill herself by slashing her wrists, before striking up a romantic relationship with an attorney. Then Isabel, for no apparent reason except that she's a free spirit, goes to bed first with a young, single, liberal French revolutionary and then with Roxeanne's brother-in-law, a middle-aged, married, conservative French diplomat, agreeing to be the older man's mistress. About this time, too, Isabel gets a job working for a famous American writer (Glenn Close), and the Walker family decide to sell a La Tour painting they've had in the family forever without knowing its value. Bebe Neuwirth and Stephen Fry enter the picture as bidders for the painting for the Getty Museum and Christie's of London.

The characters come and go, and none of them are in the least bit developed. The Americans are portrayed as laid-back and casual, except for the sisters' brother, who is uptight and penny-pinching. The French are portrayed largely as snobbish and elitist. One can never tell if the movie is about Isabel or Roxeanne. Things happen for no apparent reason, as if in a high-class soap opera. The only question the movie poses is how so many fine actors could have been conned into appearing in a story where they have so little to do.

The ending adds more melodrama and silliness to the mix, perhaps an attempt at black comedy; it's hard to say. In any case, the ending does nothing to dispel the feeling that one has just wasted 117 minutes of one's life on empty gestures.

Perhaps in an attempt to attract a wider audience, the movie is presented in two screen formats, wide and truncated, on flip sides of the same disc. The anamorphic widescreen dimensions measure a formidable 2.17:1 ratio across the TV screen, while the so-called "fullscreen" dimensions are a 1.33:1 pan-and-scan ratio. The latter cuts out almost fifty percent of the image right and left, thereby rendering the best thing about the movie, its picture quality, near worthless. Go with the widescreen if you have to watch the film at all. The video is really quite impressive; gorgeous, actually. Colors are close to perfect, grain is mostly absent, and moiré effects are unnoticeable. The delineation seems very slightly soft, but, then, I've been watching a lot of high-definition broadcasts on cable lately, so every DVD is looking a little soft to me. Blacks are especially deep and solid, perhaps a shade too much so, though, as detail is sometimes missing that probably should be present in shadows. Still, this is, overall, great-looking video.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is every bit as earnest and boring as the film. It does exactly what it's called upon to do and nothing more. Since the story is entirely dialogue driven, the sound is really not a factor except to convey the spoken word, which it does nicely. There are also a few very sweet ambient sounds on display in the rear channels, like birds and street noises, but it's not much. Nor is there any need for a wide dynamic range or an extensive frequency response. Mostly, the audio is content to reproduce the sounds of speech and violin strings. It does.

Appropriate to a film with so little substance, the DVD comes with zero extras. Zilch. Not even a trailer or an informational booklet insert. There are, however, twenty-four scene selections; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and English and Spanish subtitles. But that's all. Oh, and the two screen formats I mentioned earlier.

Parting Shots:
Is there a point to the movie? None that I could see. I assume it is intended to show us the contrasts between French and American moral values, but by the time it's finished there are no real differences to be found. So, maybe that's the point, that people are selfish and foolish everywhere. I wasn't impressed. "Le Divorce" leaves a bad taste in the mouth any way you swallow it.

One final note: I spent more time trying to finish this review than probably any other review I've ever written, over a week or more in a dozen separate sittings, never completing more than a few sentences or a paragraph before giving up. It wasn't that I was pressed for time; I just didn't have the ambition. While I usually enjoy writing about films, good or bad, this critique had me too bored to continue after the first few minutes. It is true, my attention span is not particularly long under the most ideal conditions, but I believe this stop-and-start writing process says more about the picture I was trying to review than about me. It's that kind of film.


Film Value