In the big action scene at the end of Le Divorce — from the team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory of Remains of the Day, Howards End, and A Room with a View fame — an enraged husband storms up the steps of the Eiffel Tower. As he brushes past security guards and knocks over tourists, French security guards insouciantly observe his increasingly violent acts. “He’s looking for his wife,” one guard explains to another. They fail to act until after he has barricaded himself at the top of the tower with hostages. A viewer cannot help but feel that the security guards are stand-ins for the filmmakers of Le Divorce, a film over which no one seems to have exercised custodial authority. While the film contains some humorous and charming moments, the incoherent plot and inconsistent mood of the film render it a French flop.
With its enticing initial plot and its impressive cast, the film had possibilities. The story focuses on the marital tribulations of Roxeanne (Naomi Watts), an American poet living in Paris, married to a French painter, Charles-Henri. The film opens with the arrival of Roxeanne’s sister, Isabel Walker (Kate Hudson), in Paris. As she walks in the door, Charles-Henri is on his way out, both of the house and his marriage. He is having an affair and wants a divorce, which the pregnant Roxeanne refuses to give him. She rails against the French attitude (“c’est normal”) toward adultery and divorce.
Meanwhile, Isabel takes up with a young Parisian, with whom she has post-coital debates about the merits of the influence of American culture — The Simpsons, mainly — on French civilization. To his complaints, she responds tartly, “How weird to be culturally threatened by cartoons?” She soon finds herself attracted to, and involved with, Edgar Cosset (Thierry Lhermitte), a fifty-something TV personality, who also happens to be a married, serial adulterer. That he’s identified as a pro-life, warmonging, fascist gives you an idea of the complexity of characterization in this film. In the end, however, the film can marshal no moral critique against Cosset, since he embodies most fully the amoral charm the film promotes. Even Isabel cannot be too tough on Cosset when he inevitability breaks off their affair to move on to his next conquest.
Amid its breezy comic observations about the foibles of both the Americans and the French — the film pokes fun at the French for being unwilling to talk about money and the Americans for discussing it too freely — the film contains a number of serious themes: adultery, abortion, suicide, revenge, and murder. At certain moments, the film wants to induce in us feelings of horror, as in the revelation of infidelity or in a scene of attempted suicide, and suspense (as in the final action scene at the Eiffel Tower). But the dominant flippancy of tone and dialogue fails to prepare us for such moments. Moreover, the film and its characters rapidly return to light-heartedness after such events.
At the center of the divorce is the question of who will possess a painting of St. Ursula, symbol of Christian virgin martyrs, a family heirloom that once hung in Roxeanne’s parents’ Santa Barbara home and now hangs in the living room of her Paris apartment. The battle over the painting reduces to a conflict over its cash value. The world of Le Divorce, whether American or French, is obviously a world in which the virtues and sacrifices of the life of St. Ursula are unintelligible.
The alleged “clash of cultures,” which attracted Ivory to the story, amounts to no more than linguistic difference, slightly different ways of saying and experiencing the same things in fundamentally the same way. It is significant that the American characters who spend any time at all in France in this film easily become bilingual. There is no real culture clash. And no real substance to anything. Despite this, the film has pretensions to artistic gravity. The result? Light, cosmopolitan nihilism.
— Thomas Hibbs, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University, is author of Shows About Nothing. Hibbs is also an NRO contributor.