THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Quentin Tarantino was once quoted as saying he likes all kinds of movies, except for Merchant Ivory films. He was referring to producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory, who have specialized in artsy costume dramas, the most famous of which are Howard’s End and Remains of the Day. I liked those two films, but I know what Tarantino means; most Merchant Ivory films are, well, boring. They are so repressed in their storytelling that it’s like nothing ever comes alive on screen. Howard’s End and Remains of the Day were actually about repressed feelings, so that worked in their favor, but otherwise Merchant Ivory films are almost suffocating in their lack of energy. And their attempts at telling contemporary stories are really awkward. Their adaptation of the hip-at-the-time Tama Janowitz novel “Slaves of New York” was so abysmally out of sync with modern life that it might as well have been made by aliens from another planet. Now the filmmakers tackle another modern novel for another modern tale: Le Divorce. And they again prove capable of being so constrictive that there’s no bounce to the movie.

Kate Hudson plays Isabel, a free-spirited young woman who travels to Paris to visit her sister Roxie (Naomi Watts). Just as she arrives, Roxie’s husband, Charles-Henri (Melvil Poupaud), is walking out for good. He gets a divorce lawyer, and there are concerns that he might try to take possession of a painting Roxie borrowed from her parents (Sam Waterston and Stockard Channing). The painting might possibly be a long-lost work from a major artist, so the family is naturally very interested in holding onto it. Roxie is worried about the painting, but she also does not want to get a divorce. The idea of being a divorcee – of having everything fall apart – is unthinkable to her. It soon comes to light that Charles-Henri is having an affair with a married woman, whose angry husband (Matthew Modine) begins taking his frustration out on Roxie.

Meanwhile, Isabel becomes the mistress of Edgar Cosset (Thierry Lhermitte), a French diplomat who also happens to be Charles-Henri’s uncle. He showers her with attention and expensive purses, and she revels in the attention. Isabel’s boss – an expatriate writer played by Glenn Close – knows that Edgar frequently has flings with young attractive women before throwing them away. This affair also displeases his family, especially once they learn the painting held by Roxie might be extremely valuable. They want it, but might not get it if he continues to dally around with the woman’s sister.

As you perhaps can tell, Le Divorce has more subplots than a casino has slot machines. That’s the problem. This is not a bad movie; it’s an overstuffed movie. Any one of these subplots would have made an interesting movie on its own. Cramming them all into one movie was a mistake. There’s way too much going on. You virtually need a traffic cop to keep all the characters and situations straight. Every time I would start to get interested in one of the story lines, the focus would shift to something else. It’s really quite frustrating. The material is here for five or six good movies. We instead get one mediocre movie.

It doesn’t help that – as I said – the Merchant Ivory team is not known for lightness of step. Everything that goes on here is done with such thudding literalness that the delicacy of the material gets squashed. Le Divorce is supposed to be a comedy of manners. However, the makers are overly studied in their approach to comedy. We don’t laugh because it feels like we are being told that we’re supposed to laugh. Material such as this needs to be airy, to have a life of its own. Le Divorce desperately requires an injection of fluffiness. Nowhere is this more evident than in the truly bizarre finale involving a gunman on the Eiffel Tower. The scene is intended to be farcical, but there’s no buoyancy to it. The style of the film is too heavy, so when these scene arrives, it’s hard to view it as comical.

There are some really good performances here, especially from Naomi Watts (The Ring, Mulholland Drive), who is quickly becoming one of the most interesting actresses working today. Her subplot was the one I most wanted to see more of. Instead, I got a little bit of this, a little bit of that, a little bit of something else. And I walked away from Le Divorce feeling strangely unsatisfied in every regard.

( out of four)

Le Divorce is rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements and sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes.

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