Isabel Walker (Kate Hudson), the poised and sparkly middle-class California princess who’s the central figure in Le Divorce, arrives in Paris and loses no time drifting into a naughty love affair. Her seducer is a gimlet-eyed, quintessentially worldly French diplomat named Edgar (Thierry Lhermitte), who is old enough to be her father. Romancing her at the sort of sumptuous restaurants where they’re always flambéing something or other at the next table, he comes right out and asks if she’d like to be his mistress. As if that weren’t enough to disarm an innocent abroad, here’s the ultimate detail of French bourgeois decadence: Once the two have slept together, Edgar marks his conquest by giving Isabel the gift of an incredibly expensive red alligator handbag from Hermès. Isabel can barely carry it without advertising that she’s an older man’s plaything.
All of this may sound as though it should have taken up exactly one third of an episode of ”Sex and the City.” But in the world according to producer Ismail Merchant, coscreenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and director James Ivory, it counts as a scandalous high adventure. Kate Hudson, in a two-toned Parisian bob that flatters her sunny smile, does a charming job of playing a cosmopolitan flirt who’s in full control of the relationship she has eagerly entered into. At a certain point, however, one begins to ask, Where, exactly, is the drama in all this? Then you remember: This isn’t just a Merchant Ivory film — it’s a modern-day Merchant Ivory film, one of those blurry anachronistic duds, like ”Slaves of New York” or ”A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries,” in which even the flightiest banter tries to pass itself off as the theater of high civility.
There’s a fluttery whirlwind of nondrama in ”Le Divorce.” Adapted from Diane Johnson’s 1997 novel, the movie makes Isabel’s fling the center of a three-ring circus of familial discord, most of it spinning off the inner character of France. How do the French come off in ”Le Divorce”? Let’s just say that most of them are arrogant, or sleazy, or insensitive enough to win the movie a righteous thumbs-up from Donald Rumsfeld.
Isabel has arrived to visit her older sister, Roxy (Naomi Watts), an acclaimed poet whose husband, a curly-haired Gallic hunk (Melvil Poupaud), has abandoned her in the middle of her pregnancy. The husband’s family, led by a matriarch played with duplicitous snob élan by Leslie Caron, is doing all it can to get its hands on a painting that has been in Isabel and Roxy’s family for years.
Is the painting a genuine Georges de la Tour? And if so, who, after the divorce, will get the money from it? Oddly, that’s the only question of any dramatic propulsion in ”Le Divorce.” I’m disappointed to report that Hudson and Watts have no chemistry as sisters, perhaps because Watts never seems like the expatriate artiste she’s supposed to be playing. It’s no wonder that you perk up at Thomas Lennon’s line readings; as Isabel’s brother, he makes not fitting into France look funny and hip. The rest of the movie should have taken his cue.