Running Time: 117 mins
This film is poorly titled. While it is centred around a divorce, it is one of the few mainstream films I can think of that has one of the parties argue against it.
Suzanne (Australia's Naomi Watts) is an American poet married to a fellow writer, the Frenchman Charles-Henri de Persand (Melvile Poupand). They live in Paris. Charles-Henri has fallen in love with his mistress and wants a divorce. Suzanne does not want a divorce, wants Charles-Henri to break off the affair and return to their home to be a faithful husband and a good father to their two young children. On the day Charles-Henri moves out, Suzanne's sister Isabel Walker (Hudson) flies in from California. It's her first time in Paris and she sets about having an affair with the uncle of her soon to be ex-brother-in-law.
In the property settlement for the divorce, it becomes clear that under French law a Walker family heirloom, a portrait of St Ursula, will have to be sold and the money divided between husband and wife. All the other
Walkers fly in from the USA to reclaim their valuable painting. In the process they become aware of the way things are done in France, and the effect Paris has had on Isabel.
It's often said that if we believe films set in Paris, the Eiffel Tower can be seen from every window in the city. Director James Ivory doesn't go that far though he does have a long and silly chase sequence set there. The
Eiffel Tower aside, as with all Merchant Ivory films, the admission money for Le Divorce is worth it just for the sets, locations, costumes and cinematography. F Bernard's production design is sumptuous.
That's just as well too, because the script is disappointing. Apart from the anti-French rhetoric in the story, the basic narrative is a good one: contrasting cultural reactions to fidelity and divorce. It's refreshing
too, in a Hollywood film, to hear a character defend the matrimonial bonds. Le Divorce also has the unlikely and strange, but interesting idea to have Isabel become involved with Charles-Henri's uncle at the time when her
sister is about to be unwillingly sent packing from the family. In the end we discover that even liberal French families have their limits.
But the drama over the painting, and it valuation, an attempted suicide that comes from nowhere and a recovery that is obscenely quick, the murder of a central character and the thriller chase on the Eiffel Tower, provides too many narrative strands in the story. They distract from the already good ideas on the screen.
Almost every character in Le Divorce is emotionally injured. The film argues that most of injuries are either self-inflicted or unearned. Either way the wounds run deep, sometimes never heal and the scars remain for a
lifetime. This time around Ismail Merchant, James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala seem to be asking us how did we get here, and do we want to keep doing this to ourselves?
From our perspective they're the right questions to be asking.
Fr Richard Leonard SJ is the Director of the Australian Catholic Film Office.