Directed by James Ivory, starring Kate Hudson, Naomi Watts, Leslie Caron, Thierry Lhermitte, Melvil Poupaud, Glenn Close, Stockard Channing and Matthew Modine.

A sunny California girl, Isabel (Hudson), arrives in France to visit her pregnant poet sister, Roxeanne (Watts), just as the latter's French husband deserts her. What follows is a comedy of manners on the American-in-Paris theme. As the two women muddle through their newfound situations, opportunities for passion and intrigue abound. This is a tale about the mores and morals of a privileged set of Paris-dwellers with a bunch of foreigners thrown into the mix. As Isabel negotiates her way between sexual malentendus and fashion faux pas, her sister is introduced to the flipside of French romance and the intricacies of 'le divorce'.

At the centre of the movie is a painting, used as the device to pull all the narrative strings together. Having been transported to France by the sentimental Roxeanne, it becomes a source of interest to all when its potential worth increases. And so we meet the impossibly elegant French matriarch (Caron), bemused by the Americans' lack of etiquette and determined to oversee the impending marital break-up. Pitted against her, over an oh-so courteous Sunday lunch, are the Walkers, in town to visit their girls and to guard a hitherto ignored heirloom in the family.

And then there is the art world itself, represented by rather uninspired cameo turns from Bebe Neuwirth and Stephen Fry. An ex-pat writer (Close) mooches about with words of wisdom for young women in love while an angry husband intent on revenge (Modine) stumbles his way through the picture in a bizarrely off-key performance. Most of the French characters, from the serial adulterer (Lhermitte) wining and dining a younger lover to the feckless scoundrel (Poupaud), are written within the confines of caricature.

This is no interrogation of that trademark Merchant Ivory theme, the dynamics of a culture clash. But nor is it funny or sparkling enough to pull off the social comedy. Hudson breezes her way through with a certain amount of charm, playing well off screen-sister Watts in particular, but her freakish metamorphosis into a red Hermes crocodile bag wielding Parisienne strikes the false note that characterises much of the film. Watts herself is impressive, if underused, as the sensitive artist doing her best to get her life back on track.

Although laden with suitably chic asides on couture, cuisine and l'amour, 'Le Divorce' never quite captures the appeal of la vie française. A talented cast, gorgeous production design and the definitive guide to how to wear a silk scarf do not, on their own, a great movie make. The supposedly light-hearted, superficial take on proceedings, coupled with an unfortunate lack of chemistry between some of the leading players, renders the whole affair somewhat unengaging.


Siobhán Mannion