As our nation’s hissy fit over Gallic weaselhood enters its sixth month, it’s comforting to know that some Americans are still flying their Francophilic colors at full mast, even if it’s only the folks at Merchant Ivory. The lit-duo’s latest exercise in transatlantic culture clashing tells the story of French and American families at war over the remains of a dissolved marriage—a fitting metaphor for these contentious times, though Le Divorce is ultimately less satirical than it is breathlessly captivated by our countries’ historic antagonism. As Kate Hudson’s SoCal-to-Paris transplant Isabel Walker learns (and the movie repeatedly spells out), what makes us bitter enemies can also make us mutually irresistible.
Vive la différence? Adapted from Diane Johnson’s bestseller, Le Divorce coquettishly flip-flops between loving and hating to love all things Parisian. Perky, Franglais-spouting Isabel arrives from the airport to witness older sister Roxy (Naomi Watts) in a state of connubial collapse—abandoned by her French husband and pregnant as well. Isabel assumes caretaking duties, but as her name suggests, she harbors a Jamesian susceptibility to the continental opposition, a weakness that deepens once the French in-laws descend to claim what is theirs. This Old World delegation exudes a passive-aggressive charm that repels Roxy but fascinates Isabel, who becomes particularly smitten with the family’s more-than-reciprocating Uncle Edgar (Thierry Lhermitte), a politician with a taste for leetle girlz.
Entranced by the natives, Le Divorce reduces the knowing ditziness of Johnson’s novel to vapid, exchange-student wonderment. It also softens some of the book’s more sinful provocations: septuagenarian Edgar is now respectably middle-aged, and all snarky references to EuroDisney have been conveniently expunged. With its hyper-manicured and whitewashed exteriors, Le Divorce works best as an homage to MGM’s Montmartre-via-Burbank extravaganzas. (The presence of Gigi herself, Leslie Caron, as Roxy’s mother-in-law, effectively underscores the time warp.) Alas, director James Ivory hasn’t crafted a retro-musical, though with the help of vet DP Pierre Lhomme, he keeps his sets (and leading ladies) in perpetual Technicolor bloom.
In her third and hopefully final romantic role this year, Hudson twinkles madly as her character’s gauche manners ripen into a tentative savoir faire. Isabel enters contemporary concubinage with a post-fem sense of adventure, meeting Edgar for afternoon trysts, while publicly sporting a range of presents, including an Hermès bag that cues both families to the trouble afoot. As is customary in M-I productions, conflict is sublimated into fine art, in this case, a 17th-century painting that each family claims as its own—the Americans because they inherited it, the French because the painting is French. Those hoping for a cultural smackdown must make do in the end with a tepid Sotheby’s auction.
Amicable to a fault, Le Divorce envisions a reconciliation both hopeful and featherbrained: Nothing is resolved so much as blissfully forgotten. Expat life continues with its endless rounds of poetry readings and garden receptions. Indeed, featuring a boatload of intercontinental stars who have little to do, Le Divorce uncannily embodies its privileged bilingual milieu. At worst, it suggests a documentary of its own lavish wrap party.
Matrimony as a wellspring of eternal happiness is an eye-rollingly dated notion by any standard, so it’s strange that American Wedding (a/k/a American Pie 3) should treat the institution with such undue reverence. But then again, the hallmark raunch of the series was never more than candy coating over a squishy center of heterosexual dudes-togetherness and moony romanticism.
This putative franchise closer offers more of the same—though like, say, a jizz stain on Mom’s best linen, the formula has long since hardened into a flaky mess. Jim (Jason Biggs) and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) have graduated from college and band camp, respectively, and are now headed down the aisle. Much of the crew is back as well, though the absentees stand out most (Chris Klein’s dorky über-jock; Natasha Lyonne’s deadpan cynic). The plot is basically an obstacle course to the altar, complete with ritualistic, parent-facilitated sexual humiliation. Fans will be pleased to learn that a certain wedding pastry suffers an untimely and ignoble demise.
Occupied with ceremonial duties, Biggs’s putz cedes much of the film to the Stifmeister (Seann William Scott), erstwhile keg king, now embittered football coach’s assistant. Elbowing his way into the wedding if only to score one of the bridesmaids, he unwittingly taps into his feminine side—never more so than when he crashes a gay club and gets dragged into a dancefloor vogue-off with a burly admirer. The deliriously overacting Scott is game for anything, too much really, but as a one-man army against the tide of Z100-scored banality, he’s the closest thing the movie has to a savior.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 5, 2003