Le Divorce

And not a Helena Bonham Carter in sight...
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The Independent Culture

Mea culpa: there's one thing I've been lazy about as a critic over the years, and that's being too ready to use the brand name "Merchant-Ivory" as dismissive shorthand for a certain strain of stuffily prestigious screen Englishness. But the actual films directed by (the American) James Ivory, produced by (the Indian) Ismail Merchant and written by (the German-born) Ruth Prawer Jhabvala conform to type less often than detractors might think. And although the trio are often accused of catering to the heritage industry, really they seem to make the films that interest them whether there is an obvious audience or not.

Le Divorce, their latest collaboration, is ostensibly pretty much what you might imagine an upbeat, brittle, Parisian comedy by the trio to be: tastefully star-studded, benignly snobbish, laced with swellegant furnishings. With its populous cast of French and American actors and Stephen Fry, this Americans-in-Paris story is rather like Woody Allen's transatlantic musical comedy Everyone Says I Love You, mercifully without the songs. If the film has a target audience at all, it's surely the same self-consciously upmarket Europhiles targeted by New Yorker ads.

Based on a novel by Diane Johnson, Le Divorce is a story of two Californian sisters falling in love and out of love with Paris. Ingénue Isabel (Kate Hudson) flies in to see her pregnant sister Roxane (Naomi Watts), whose French husband (Melvil Poupaud) is leaving her for another woman. Visiting the aristocratic in-laws, headed by Leslie Caron, Isabel finds herself attracted to Uncle Edgar, a right-wing TV talking head (Thierry Lhermitte, precise and smoothly bird-like). Soon, Edgar has persuaded Isabel to become his mistress - in much the same way that he might take her on as a PA - and this bland beach girl is exploring a new universe of fine cuisine, luxury lingerie and Hermès handbags. Meanwhile, Roxane feels thoroughly disillusioned with the French way of life, especially since her divorce entails the evaluation of her possessions, among them a painting which might or might not be a Georges de la Tour. Also embroiled are a flamboyant American novelist played by Glenn Close (whose performance you'd have to call a triumph of arch) and a rejected husband (Matthew Modine), whose demented vendetta triggers a ludicrous climax up the Eiffel Towel - where else? Well, where else indeed for a Paris comedy, especially one laced with Gainsbourg and twiddling accordions on the soundtrack? But be honest - who ever expected a Merchant-Ivory film to end with a gun-toting maniac caught by surveillance cameras? As obvious as Le Divorce often feels, just as often it's anything but: for example, we're invited neither to endorse nor to condemn the fact that Isabel two-times her sympathetic hipster boyfriend Yves (Romain Duris) with a cynical far-right ideologue.

At first, the film looks set to peddle the usual stereotypes. The French will be flighty on the one hand, impeccably classy on the other: the aristos shock the Americans by their blithe chatter about adultery, while the film starts with Roxane's greengrocer discoursing on 17th-century attitudes to asparagus. The film undeniably commodifies the things that wealthy Americans traditionally find irresistible about France - its sanctified, temple-like lingerie shops, the quasi-English tweediness of the landed gentry. The Americans, meanwhile, are gauche, impressionable, awkwardly attuned to the nuances of European culture.

Yet Le Divorce always contrives to move some way beyond the stereotypes, to provide some unexpected shading. In a key scene, Isabel and Yves watch TV, flipping between culture channel Arte, a prolix talk show in which Edgar suavely spouts his anti-abortion views, and The Simpsons dubbed into French. Yves expresses his horror that France is being swamped by American product, but can't stop watching the show anyway, while Isabel comments, "How weird to be culturally threatened by a cartoon." Where you might expect such patrician film-makers to treat The Simpsons as some sort of lowbrow horror, they use it as a springboard for a discussion of cultural anxiety. In other words, don't switch channels, there's something going on here.

The ineffable Frenchness seemingly offered by this lifestyle movie par excellence is in fact constantly framed with irony. We are invited to swoon at a montage of plates bearing exquisitely sculpted dinner delicacies, but the scene ends with Isabel's horror-struck brother (a nicely prissy turn by Thomas Lennon) presented with the bill. Where the film appears to celebrate cut-glass cultural value, it in fact reveals the price tag: Isabel's apprenticeship in French sophistication is really a willing and very expensive prostitution, a ritualised transaction involving deluxe lingerie and a handbag that's apparently too chic to actually carry around. Culture and sex, the film suggests, cost, just as it costs to make a film this self-consciously "tasteful": Le Divorce effectively satirises its own status as a luxury consumer item.

That's not the half of the film's self-consciousness. Its Americans in Paris act as if they are taking part in a film about Americans in Paris, while its French characters put on a display of Frenchness for their benefit. This is not a film of clichés, but one in which people are forever caught conforming to cliché, like Isabel, transformed overnight into the standard template of Edgar's mistresses. Le Divorce may invoke cultural stereotypes, but it's far from recycling them in the shamelessly uncritical way that François Ozon's supposedly smart and hip Swimming Pool does.

At one point Roxane complains that she feels as if she's in a Balzac novel. "She wishes!", you might be tempted to add - but when did you last see an English-language film in which a character could conceivably have read a Balzac novel? Le Divorce may not be Balzac, though it shares his concern with the price of lifestyle, and it may not quite be Ivory's beloved Henry James, although it's certainly Jamesian in its desire to moderate transatlantic cultural misunderstanding. Its level of cultural argument, perhaps, is more that of an intelligent think-piece in Vogue, but then that's not bad going, by the usual standards of mainstream comedy (the best joke is that Isabel prizes her Hermès handbag as quintessentially Parisian, while the French revere it for its association with Grace Kelly). This is a soufflé, certainly, a luxury confection of the sort that we art-house polo-neckers are prone to sniff at; but it's made with a degree of seriousness and individuality that we'd be churlish to overlook. As Merchant-Ivory films go, Le Divorce is a lot less Merchant-Ivory than you'd expect.