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Why we love and hate the French

Special to The Times

“This is a more frivolous Merchant Ivory film than people are used to,” director James Ivory admits after screening a bubbly teaser for his new film, “Le Divorce” (opening Aug. 8), for a packed audience at the recent L.A. Times Festival of Books, where he appeared with author Diane Johnson. Afterward, when asked to explain further, he says, “It’s not a period film, it’s a contemporary film. It’s much more openly a kind of comedy, with even some farcical elements too.”

Not that there aren’t sober topics addressed in Johnson’s story of Americans in Paris, it’s just that she suspended her keen and sometimes acerbic observations in whipped cream.

In the film, as in the book, twentysomething Californian Isabel Walker (Kate Hudson) flies to Paris to visit her sister Roxy (Naomi Watts), who is pregnant with her second child and, sadly, abandoned by her French husband, Charles-Henri de Persand (Melvil Poupaud). He has inconveniently taken up with a married woman. Although Isabel has ostensibly come to help her sister out, she arrives in a more complex culture to discover herself, her adult self -- benefiting from haute cuisine and an affair.

Seated beside Ivory during an interview at the Peninsula Hotel, Johnson, who splits her year between Paris and San Francisco, ponders why this was so.

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“The answer I think lies in America’s feelings for France, at which we’re now seeing the reverse,” ventures the writer, a diminutive woman with tousled gray hair and bright blue eyes. “There’s some kind of intrinsic interest in France, and then it’s kind of a Cinderella story.”

“It could also be,” Ivory interjects, “at least for someone my age, the goal was to go to France.” Nattily dressed in a toast-colored tweed jacket, the director has cropped white hair and a commanding presence.

Ivory visited France for the first time in 1950, fell in love with the country, and has been going back regularly ever since. He and his partner, Ismail Merchant, made several of their films there and today have an apartment in the sixth arrondissement -- just a block from Johnson’s pad.

When “Le Divorce” the book came out six years ago, Ivory read it and thought the widely lauded bestseller would make an interesting film adaptation. “It seemed to connect with a lot of things that I already knew and liked and didn’t like about the French,” Ivory says. He made an appointment to meet Johnson, even though he knew the film rights had already been sold. When the original project didn’t pan out, he leapt at the chance to do it himself, writing the script with longtime collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

Johnson had a chance to read the script and visited the set several times during the filming in Paris last year, but respectfully recognizes that the film is a thing (somewhat) apart from the book. Of course, there were changes in transition, but she has seen the film and says she is pleased. The tone and themes are still there -- the particularities of our love-hate relationship with the French, embodied in Roxy’s failed romance with a Frenchman and in Isabel’s budding one.

“Is it a love-hate relationship though?” Ivory asks. “Is it really more a love-disappointment relationship?”

“Or a love-envy?” Johnson says.

“Or a love-hurt feelings,” Ivory says, “but it’s still love.”

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