James Ivory, with that formidable half-century of powerful work behind him - "Shakespeare-Wallah," "A Room With a View," "Howard's End" and "Remains of the Day" come to mind - has somehow persuaded himself and his partners, writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and producer Ismail Merchant, that he can direct a fluffy piece of romantic comedy, in this case the Diane Johnson novel "Le Divorce." But he has been unwilling to let anything go; and by stuffing the movie with too many characters, plots and subplots, and then treating them as though they were elements in a weighty, Jamesian world of American expatriates in contact with an alien French society, he has fatally wounded the film and lost the pleasures it might have given us.
Kate Hudson is Isabel Walker, from Santa Barbara; she arrives in Paris to visit her poet half-sister Roxeanne (Naomi Watts), in time to find Roxeanne's French husband Charles-Henri de Persand (Melvil Poupaud) leaving her for another woman and demanding a divorce. Never mind that they have a daughter and another child on the way. No one in Charles-Henri's family, especially his mother the matriarch (Leslie Caron) or her brother-in-law Edgar (Thierry Lhermitte) seems terribly upset; in fact Edgar soon invites Isabel to be his mistress, sealing the deal with an Hermes 'Kelly' bag worth $6,000 - a gift he has successively given to each of his mistresses over the years.
But there is more; too much more. Glenn Close is an American expatriate poet, friend of Roxeanne, brief employer of Isabel, and former mistress of Edgar. There is a Walker family heirloom painting that may be by De La Tour, or may not; it brings a curator from the Getty (Bebe Neuwirth) and an appraiser from Christie's (Stephen Fry); and there is a wronged husband (Matthew Modine) married to the woman Charles-Henri is pursuing.
Other directors, blessed with a sense of comedy, have done well with this kind of material. Ivory can't even handle a one-line joke. Isabel asks Modine: "Are you an admirer of American poetry?" "No," he says. "I'm an entertainment lawyer." That's a joke that should have gone bing-bing-bing. Instead, Ivory drags out the pause between the "No" and the "I'm an entertainment lawyer" for what appears to be minutes, giving so much weight to it that it falls dead even as he speaks it.
And there's more: "Le Divorce" contains a great deal of emotional bloodshed, but it is told bloodlessly. And it contains sex without being sexual or erotic; its affect is flat. We speak of films containing more than meets the eye, but in "Le Divorce" everything meets the eye and nothing is left underneath.
The actors are not to blame for this; Kate Hudson does her best, and I do not mean that lightly. The versatile Naomi Watts is excellent, as is the ageless Leslie Caron. A small gem is given us by Stockard Channing in dyed black hair as Isabel's and Roxeanne's mother, come to visit them in Paris with her husband (Sam Waterston). Lhermitte, gorgeous as ever, is the classic middle-aged philanderer, trading on his looks and sex appeal to attract Isabel. Glenn Close is given a role that goes nowhere other than to illustrate the continuity of Edgar's life outside his marriage.
So it's understandable that Ivory wants to relax with a comedy every once in a while, but he should know by now that the genre is not for him.