Here we discover that the courtly, stick-up-the-ass oeuvre of Merchant-Ivory knows no epochal restrictions. Set in present-day France -- but so bourgeois of focus that it might as well be happening on Mars -- "Le Divorce" explores a rift in the transatlantic marriage of one Charles Henri de Persand (Melvil Poupaud) and his American wife, Roxeanne (Naomi Watts).
As the movie begins, Charles is walking out on Roxy, leaving her with one rug rat tugging at her metaphoric apron and another little croissant in the oven. Only much later do we learn that there's any particular reason for this abrupt departure; for the longest time, the movie takes great pleasure in suggesting that abandoning your wife and kids is (to paraphrase Keanu in "Parenthood") just something French dudes do.
See, it's a culture-clash comedy, a point made abundantly clear when Roxy's loving family arrives from the U.S. to provide moral support and negotiate the sticky situation with the relentlessly ceremonious de Persand clan (headed by a queenly Leslie Caron). Luckily for Roxy, her husband's exit coincides with the arrival of her spirited sister, Isabel (Kate Hudson), who clearly dotes on her -- yet, in between shows of support, also manages to boff both a studly commoner and the obscenely well-connected uncle of her sister's AWOL better half. (Well, you can't live for other people all the time.) The girls' parents (Sam Waterston and Stockard Channing) and brother (Thomas Lennon) likewise make the voyage, and their collective tongue-clucking over Charles' inexcusable behavior gradually evolves into a running discussion of the fate of a certain Walker family heirloom -- a painting that may or may not be an authentic Georges de la Tour. If it is, the jilted Roxy may never have another worry in her life, but taking it out of the country isn't about to win the favor of the de Persands -- or the French government. Still, it's a fun subject for the Walkers to discuss over luncheons that run just shy of 900 smackers.
Now, if these are experiences you can relate to on any basic level, you're hardly my first choice of someone to take to a Nashville Pussy concert. (And did I mention that Roxy is a poet? Jeeeez.) But once it's been established that maintaining textbook empathy for these folks is out of the question, it's easy to appreciate them the way one would animals in a zoo, fixating on their beautiful plumage and curious mating habits. As adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and James Ivory from Diane Johnson's novel, "Le Divorce" plays like one of Woody Allen's lesser ensemble pictures, flitting from one upscale character to another just long enough to wring polite enjoyment from their individual tics. Lennon's Roger, for instance, is a dour-faced malcontent who doesn't miss an opportunity to take potshots at his Gallic surroundings. Stephen Fry, meanwhile, appears as a Walker family ally who appears to relish his cross-channel visits exactly because they afford him the opportunity to spew endless nationalist derision. (More than anything else, this film performs the valuable social service of letting America's latte liberals know that it's once again OK for everybody to hate the French.)
Nearer to the forefront, Hudson's unsinkable geniality enlivens a character whose actions, taken in toto, are absolutely inexplicable. Watts, though properly affronted, doesn't have enough to do to demonstrate how deep her talent runs. (After "Mulholland Drive," "The Ring" was just a careerist holding pattern.) But perhaps the only serious mistake the movie makes is to cast Matthew Modine as an American husband driven to drastic measures by Charles' extramarital indulgences. Call me unimaginative, but I just can't see insane urgency coming from Matthew Modine. It is however, an idea right up Merchant-Ivory's mannerly alley.