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Le Divorce

LONDON ON THE SEINE

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In the days before cell phones, a French friend of mine -- the Last Faithful Husband in Gaul -- told me that when the phone company began to itemize calls on monthly bills, French husbands went berserk: Now their wives could figure out their mistresses' phone numbers.

For the French, it seems, there's sex, and then there's everything else. At least that's the impression you get from Le Divorce, an often somber piece of insouciance (based on a novel) from director James Ivory, whose films are a dependable brand of cinema. Ivory tends to make movies about the British Empire (Howards End), but even when he comes home to America (Mr. and Mrs. Bridge), he always sojourns among the social, financial and cultural elite.

So it is with Le Divorce, the story of two privileged California sisters in Paris. Roxeanne (Naomi Watts) is a poet married to Charles-Henri, a painter, and both have family money, which allows them to pursue their fruitless professions. Isabel (Kate Hudson) arrives in Paris to visit pregnant Roxeanne on the very day that Charles-Henri, mumbling tepid apology, abandons her for a married Russian mistress.

The sisters have permissive stateside parents (Sam Waterston, Stockard Channing), and Roxeanne has an icy French mother-in-law (Leslie Caron, now a handsome septuagenarian) whose charming, married, mid-50s brother, Edgar (Thierry Lhermitte), justifies his myriad adulteries by quoting Emerson: "Heroes become a bore at last."

Before long, young Isabel hooks up with vigorous Edgar, who gives her the same chic Hermes handbag that he lavishes on all of his lovers, one of whom was an American writer in Paris (Glenn Close, stunning with a fall of silken hair). Meanwhile, the Russian mistress' lovesick American husband (Matthew Modine) slowly goes off the deep end of cuckoldry, which leads to a climax, atop the Eiffel Tower, that's either a grand parody of thriller cinema, a grand faux pas by Ivory, or both.

The final character in this somewhat overstuffed tale is a valuable painting of Ursula, the patron saint of virgins, that sets off a bidding war between an American curator (Bebe Neuwirth) and a Brit (Stephen Fry) who keenly observes, "Everything is worse when the French are involved." The movie's culture-bashing is just slightly lopsided toward the French, and one rather suspects (but can't be sure) that the whole affair is actually a black comedy.

What's always so impressive about Ivory is how he derides his characters and yet celebrates their imperfections and joie de vivre. His appealing subtlety embraces a palatable sophistication that endorses the right of people to their private lives, especially when it comes to sex. A suicide attempt notwithstanding, Le Divorce is a big wet French kiss, replete with a generous travelogue -- including lunch inside the hideous Pompidou Center -- and with a comfortably Ivory-esque sensation to its production and pace. There's no New Wave here, except perhaps when a French child sighs and says, "I don't like Sundays," a lovely echo of Truffaut. In French and English, with subtitles.


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