Americans in Paris

'Le Divorce' turns a depressing topic into an appealing comedy of manners

"Le Divorce" comes to theaters this week preceded by a batch of mixed signals.

On one hand, it comes from the celebrated team of director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, one of the most enduring partnerships in movie history. Its American première will be followed this month by a European debut at the Venice film festival.

On the other hand, it didn't show up at the Cannes film fest, and advance word of mouth has not been encouraging - despite its top-notch roster of international stars, including Kate Hudson, Naomi Watts, Glenn Close, Sam Waterston, Leslie Caron, Stockard Channing, and Bebe Neuwirth.

As they used to say in Hollywood, whatta cast! It's the kind of ensemble usually gathered by actor-friendly directors like Woody Allen and Robert Altman. There's a photogenic face for almost every conceivable taste. You almost expect Arnold Schwarzenegger to pop up in the mix. (Don't worry, he doesn't.)

As usual when advance indicators are mixed, the truth about "Le Divorce" lies between the extremes. No, it isn't a Merchant Ivory classic like "Shakespeare Wallah" or "A Room With a View" or "Howards End." But it isn't a major disappointment like "Surviving Picasso."

It's best seen as a frothy concoction with many light and lissome moments, a strong undercurrent of serious domestic drama, and a commitment to themes that have fascinated Merchant Ivory for ages.

The story begins as an appealing American named Isabel (Hudson) arrives in Paris to help her sister Roxy (Watts) prepare for the birth of her second child. But disaster has just struck: Roxy's husband, Charles-Henri, has walked out on her to pursue his infatuation with a wacky Russian émigrée. Charles-Henri wants to marry his newfound love, and that means obtaining a divorce.

Roxy is understandably furious, and gets even angrier when she discovers unpleasant aspects of French law that give more rights to the erring husband than to the aggrieved wife. Complicating the situation is a painting owned by Roxy's family. It may be a Georges de la Tour original, worth a fortune on the art market. Or it may be the work of a de la Tour student, correspondingly low in value.

The answer depends on which art expert you believe. In any case, it's been hanging in Roxy's home, and her estranged husband insists he's entitled to at least half of what it fetches on the market. All of which eventually brings Roxy's mom and dad (Channing and Waterston) to Paris, hoping to sort out family finances and their daughter's emotional well-being.

Merchant Ivory is best known for period pieces ("The Remains of the Day") and excursions to India ("The Householder," "Bombay Talkie"). But the team has created a number of modern tales as well, including "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries," one of its best pictures.

"Le Divorce" falls into this category, and moviegoers will find echoes of many perennial Merchant Ivory themes in its bittersweet story: family conflict, an interest in European culture, and a fascination with the ambivalent attitudes held by self-confident Americans toward the more sophisticated civilization that lies just across the Atlantic.

"Le Divorce" doesn't so much explore these themes as suggest them, tease them out, and play with them, sometimes humorously and sometimes more thoughtfully than the film's good-natured surface might lead you to expect. Its weakest point - very surprising in a Merchant Ivory movie - is its acting, especially when Mr. Modine enters as the overwrought husband of the Russian bimbo.

In sum, "Le Divorce" is no masterpiece, but that shouldn't dissuade moviegoers from giving it a whirl as a flavorful alternative to the summer's more gimmicky fare.

Rated PG-13; contains mature content.

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