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The French Connection

Cinematic sightseeing abroad

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Their sterling reputation notwithstanding, is it possible that the Merchant-Ivory team is nothing more than the cinematic equivalent of the 1985 Chicago Bears?

NFL fans will recall how, in the modern era anyway, that football franchise long wallowed in mediocrity before transforming into one of the most respected units in pro football history, culminating in a Super Bowl whipping of the New England Patriots. But then, like The Usual Suspects' Keyzer Soze, they disappeared from sight, rarely resurfacing again as a powerhouse and never returning to the Big Game.

The joint career of director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant has also gone something like that. While respected in a few circles, most of the earlier pictures produced by this tony team were dismissed by many as dull, arid affairs -- at that point in time, the term "Merchant-Ivory film" could divide a dinner party into two factions and signified a highly personal matter of taste, much like Jerry Lewis films, Olivia Newton-John albums, or canned sardines.

But for a brief period, Merchant-Ivory became critical and art-house favorites, knocking out the triumphant trio of A Room With a View, Howards End and The Remains of the Day. Suddenly, British period pieces were the rage among discerning film fans, Academy voters were handing out accolades by the armful, and Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter were the indie "It" girls.

And then it was over. Merchant and Ivory have made a few films since then (both together and individually), but none have managed to capture the movie-going imagination, resulting in tepid reviews and dour box office.

Le Divorce, then, is the team's attempt to recapture their former glory by meshing popular young stars sporting $100 million grossers on their resumes with a popular literary source: Diane Johnson's 1997 bestseller, adapted by Merchant-Ivory's regular scripter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Yet what Jhabvala whips up isn't a spry look at the clashing of two cultures as much as a clumsy series of missteps -- a movie that never finds the right tone to punch across what could have been a perceptive and poignant tale.

Despite its continental flair, Le Divorce is at its core no more sophisticated than two other Kate Hudson comedies, the heavily lambasted How to Lose a Guy In 10 Days and Alex & Emma, in which Hudson ratchets up the "cute" factor. Here, it works . . . to a point. But her character of Isabel Walker, a young American who ventures to Paris to stay with her sister Roxy (Naomi Watts), is maddeningly inconsistent, a supposedly independent rebel who ultimately seems as intelligent as a croissant. In the film's ceaselessly unfolding melodrama, Isabel discovers upon her arrival that her pregnant sister has been deserted by her French husband Charles-Henri (Melvil Poupaud), a cad who has taken up with an apparently deranged Russian woman who seems to be constantly channeling one or more of the Marx Brothers. Isabel is supposed to be there to provide support to her depressed sibling, but instead she spends most of her time boffing one of her in-laws, a rabid right-winger (Thierry Lhermitte) so intent on dating younger women that you half-expect him to belt out "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" (Gigi star Leslie Caron would have been on hand to help him out -- she's cast as the French family's insufferably arrogant matriarch).

An attempted suicide (which, incidentally, makes no sense psychologically and succeeds in diminishing the movie's most sympathetic character) brings the Walker girls' parents (Sam Waterston and Stockard Channing) and brother (Thomas Lennon) all the way from America; they barely acknowledge the tragedy that united them before engaging in trivial banter that smacks of the laziest brand of network sit-com. Meanwhile, the Marx impersonator's American husband isn't happy about his wife's extramarital affair with Charles-Henri, so he spends most of the movie harassing not his wife, nor her lover, but poor innocent Roxy. Matthew Modine plays this crazed victim of spousal infidelity at a fever pitch, and his sequences are mini-ballets of unintentional comedy so distracting that the movie couldn't have been any sillier had Roberto Benigni been given the role.

Watts, playing a pregnant woman with the smallest ankles in recorded history (picture a skinny model with a pillow tucked under her shirt), works hard to create a character from among the wafts of vague characterizations that flood the film, while Stephen Fry has a couple of droll moments as a Christie's art expert. But for the most part, the high-caliber cast (which also includes Glenn Close and Bebe Neuwirth) finds itself adrift in a weightless confection that won't exactly add further strain to Yankee-Franco tensions but won't help build a bridge of understanding, either.

One of the plot strands in the French flick Jet Lag concerns the wish of one of its characters to have a life that resembled the plot of a Hollywood movie. So perhaps it's with no small measure of irony that the weakest aspect of this otherwise delightful film is an improbable, Hollywoodized denouement that is at odds with the sharp Gallic comedy that preceded it.

Two powerhouse performers, The English Patient's Juliette Binoche and The Professional's Jean Reno, are both wonderful here, she playing a chatty beautician escaping from an abusive boyfriend and he playing a curt fussbudget who was once a master chef. A local strike strands both of them at the Paris airport; eventually electing to pass the time in a hotel room, they quickly become hostile toward each other's philosophies before finding some common ground that allows them to blossom together.

In a formulaic Hollywood comedy, this set-up would have resulted in wall-to-wall slapstick shenanigans (think of Sandra Bullock's bout with diarrhea in Two Weeks Notice, or Jennifer Lopez's music video interlude in Maid In Manhattan), but here the emphasis is on talk, talk, talk -- and most of it is absorbing, intelligent, and often very funny. It's just too bad the filmmakers didn't let the story run its natural course rather than tacking on an artificial ending. Still, compared to the complete artificiality of Le Divorce, this import scores high marks for giving us likable, believable characters. Vive le France!

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