For some, Paris is Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe — an embarrassment of touristic riches interspersed with strings of baffling words and encounters with equally baffling food and wine.
Of course, it's possible to get past the merely iconic, the postcard clichés to discover a city pumping with vigor, teeming with Epicurean pleasures and populated by women whose fetishistically knotted scarves remind one that the author of "The Story of O" was -- naturellement -- French.
Despite the suggestiveness of those knots and the ubiquity of lingerie stores not everything in Paris is redolent of sex. More than a few corners are redolent with the waste of thousands of beloved chiens and worse — racism, nationalism, Le Pen. Along with the cacophony of ringing cellphones, the whooshing roller-bladers and flanking ghettos this is the Paris that most tourists turn a blind eye to but that now helps shape the city's topography. Alas, neither this Paris nor the intoxicating Paris of history is much in evidence in James Ivory's banal adaptation of Diane Johnson's novel, "Le Divorce," a film in which the City of Light's seductions and perils are as dimmed as the novelist's point and purpose.
At once a bildungsroman, a comedy of manners and a shrewd read on American-French relations, Johnson's fizzy romance traces how a young USC dropout, Isabel (Kate Hudson in the movie), matures from callow Californian to womanly Francophone. Having gone to Paris to care for her pregnant sister, Roxy (Naomi Watts), Isabel stays to discover her inner Gigi. Her unsentimental education involves haute cuisine, haute couture and, more crucially, bouts of coitus with "L'Oncle Edgar" (Thierry Lhermitte), a conservative pundit who's her uncle by marriage and old enough to be her grandfather. At least that's the case in the book, where he's 70 and, as Isabel swoons, his white hair and vigor make her feel as if she were in bed with the almighty — or racy words to that effect.
Filmmakers always make sacrifices when they adapt books to the screen, but it's too bad Ivory and his longtime collaborator, writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, shaved 20 years off Edgar's age. The youthful-looking Lhermitte wasn't out of his 40s when "Le Divorce" was shot and looks nothing like the Zeus-like figure of the novel. The five-decade gap between Johnson's lovers invests their affair with undeniable frisson, while saying something about Isabel's character and furnishing the story with a useful metaphor. Isabel falls for Edgar not because of his snowy mane but because the years have crowned him with experience, adventure and masculine prerogative she finds exciting. He's a blast from the European past, and when the American falls into his arms she's also falling into the seductive embrace of another culture.
Adapting a critical favorite like "Le Divorce" is never easy and not only because transposing a story from the page to the screen subjects a filmmaker to the wrath of readers loyal to the novel. Minor changes like hair color — Johnson's Isabel is dark-haired, yet Hudson is fair — may not jeopardize the reader's trust, but more significant changes, like turning Edgar's elderly statesman and swain into a middle-age roué, erode the integrity of the very project. Movie adaptations rarely do justice to the streams of images that begin playing in our heads as soon as we open a book, but the best literary adaptations either trump the original or offer an alternate take, another read on the material that somehow holds its own.
The polite adaptations churned out by Ivory, Jhabvala and Ivory's longtime producer and partner, Ismail Merchant, tend to bring out the critical knives. The larger problem isn't that the triumvirate is seldom up to the challenges of their usual literary sources — whether by way of Henry James or Diane Johnson — but that they're resoundingly dull filmmakers. Rarely does their good taste in books translate into good, vital moviemaking, an exception being their delightful gloss on E.M. Forster's "A Room With a View." Although the film isn't faithful to the exact letter of the novel, its droll leading performances make it work, and the period backdrop suits the director to a T. Committed to the story, Ivory staked as personal a claim on the book as any devoted reader.
Maybe the cultural, sexual and spiritual awakening of a young California woman didn't interest Ivory. Who knows? Whatever the reason, his riff on "Le Divorce" follows the original only in broad strokes, hewing to a similar plot with many of the same characters but without the wit, the barbs and the politics. One reason Isabel falls for Edgar is she sees him talking on a TV program. She doesn't know what he's saying — at that point, she hasn't mastered the language — but in the book she discovers that he's pushing for U.S. and French intervention in Bosnia, which he considers a moral imperative. The movie is set in some indeterminate present, which explains why Bosnia is no longer part of the picture. What it doesn't explain is why Edgar's politics now are waved away as "reactionary."
For all our "frog" French jokes and their sneers about our McCulture, Johnson suggests, the United States and France are as linked by history and shared values as Isabel and Edgar are bound by pleasure. Ivory doesn't seem to think that his audience is as open as Johnson's readership to this lesson; either that or he believes moviegoers have no use for politics. What a drag he didn't give us a chance to prove him wrong. In the film, all Isabel learns is how to brew a special tea, walk in high heels and order her meals in French. We, in turn, learn that Hudson is as bland a screen presence as ever, that Leslie Caron has held up nicely and that Watts, an actress with a dangerous talent, can do no wrong. We get, in other words, the tourist's version of Johnson's book — a room with an obstructed view.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for mature thematic elements and sexual content
Times guidelines: Mild adult situations and (French) language
Leslie Caron ... Suzanne de Persand
Stockard Channing ... Margeeve Walker
Kate Hudson ... Isabel Walker
Thierry Lhermitte ... Edgar Cosset
Naomi Watts ... Roxy de Persand
Fox Searchlight Pictures presents a Merchant Ivory/Radar Pictures production, released by Fox Searchlight. Director James Ivory. Writers James Ivory, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Based on the novel by Diane Johnson. Producers Michael Schiffer, Ismail Merchant. Director of photography Pierre Lhomme. Music Richard Robbins. Editor John David Allen. Production designer Frédéric Bénard. Costume designer Carol Ramsey. Sound recordist Ludovic Hénault. Casting Annette Trumel. In English and in French with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.
In limited release.
James Ivory's banal adaptation of Diane Johnson's novel misses the original's wit, barbs and politics.
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