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Le Divorce (2003)

Le Divorce

Everything sounds sexier in French.

Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 117 minutes

UK Certificate: 12A

The cinematic partnership of Indian producer Ismail Merchant, American director James Ivory and German-Polish screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was forged in 1963 (with ‘The Householder’), and has since found its way into the Guinness Book of Records for its unrivalled longevity, while also earning a deserved reputation for creating films of quality. While perhaps their best known movies have been English period dramas (‘A Room with a View’ and ‘Howard’s End’), in fact their favourite theme is the interaction of different, often non-English cultures, reflecting their own multiethnic origins.

Take their latest film, ‘Le Divorce’. Adapted from Diane Johnson’s novel, it is a contemporary tale, set in Paris, based around the messy divorce proceedings between an irresponsible young French artist Charles-Henri (Melvil Poupaud) and his pregnant American wife Roxanne (Naomi Watts). Both Roxanne’s and Charles-Henri’s families become involved in the division of property when it emerges that a painting which Roxanne has inherited may in fact be an original LaTour worth millions, and things are further complicated by an affair between Roxanne’s sister Isabel (Kate Hudson) and Charles-Henri’s married uncle Edgar.

Like Merchant-Ivory’s earlier films ‘Jefferson in Paris’ and ‘A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries’, ‘Le Divorce’ puts Franco-American relations under the spotlight, examining whether the differences between these two cultures are really so irreconcilable. Full of satirical observations on French and American attitudes to fashion, cuisine, sexuality, money and art, the film shows not only where the two nations part company, but also how much they have in common. Light-hearted, witty and very mature, it is like an episode of ‘Sex and the City’ set in Paris, only more subtle – and a million miles from the Francophobic hype that is currently de rigeur in the American media.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s script is typically intelligent, and while the plot itself is rather slight, ‘Le Divorce’ is, like the painting at its centre, a portrait of character, at first easily underestimated but really quite exquisite in its detail. Desite the film’s ostensible subject matter, the ensemble cast represents the perfect marriage of French and American actors, with standout performances from Leslie Caron as the refined yet formidable matriarch of the French family, Glenn Close as a jaded émigrée poet in Paris, and Thierry Lhermitte as gallant serial adulterer Edgar – and Stephen Fry eats up his scenes as the absurdly snobbish English art valuer Piers Janely.

‘Le Divorce’ is hardly going to change your life, or even stay long in your memory, but it is for all that a highly entertaining comedy, full of romance and wit, where the only things which will split are your sides.

It's Got: A showcase of fine acting from both sides of the Atlantic, brilliantly observed satire, and an adult script that never underestimates the intelligence of its audience.

It Needs: More weight, perhaps.


A polished piece of film-making, and a welcome antidote to the less subtle portrayals of the Franco-American relations found currently in the world media. A bit inconsequential, though…