Le Divorce: An American In Paris

Le Divorce (2003), directed by James Ivory, tells the story of Isabel Walker (Kate Hudson), a young American woman who comes to Paris to help her pregnant sister Roxy (Naomi Watts) only to find upon her arrival that her sister’s husband has left her to be with his married lover.  

One of the primary pleasures of Le Divorce is its cast. Leads Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts, are well cast as sisters. The supporting cast is filled with great names such as Glenn Close, Stephen Fry, Stockard Channing, Sam Waterson, Matthew Modine, Bebe Neuwirth and Leslie Caron. Based on the novel by Diane Johnson, Le Divorce was billed as a comedy but I while there are humorous moments, the film is also punctuated with moments of tragedy, loneliness and deep sadness. This film has two plots. One plot, which I shall call Roxy’s story, and then there is Isabel’s story and of self-discovery. 


Isabel arrives in Paris, the quintessential California girl. Very quickly she takes it upon herself to become the mistress of her French uncle-in-law Edgar. In order to woo Edgar, a man much older than she, Isabel changes her hair and buys expensive lingerie from La Perla and calls him up whereby Edgar invites Isabel to lunch where the “frisson” is apparent and the rules of engagement for the affair are laid down by Edgar. Shortly after she receives a hand-delivered Hermès Kelly bag symbolising the beginning of the affair – a symbol which we later discover Edgar has used many times before.

What I love about this movie is that it so cleverly illustrates some of the cultural clashes between American and French views regarding marriage, divorce and adultery and their inevitable incompatibility.  

Glenn Close’s plays an American writer making Paris her home and it is such a great role for her. She looks fantastic, her long, grey hair so beautiful and so French. I enjoy her wit and intelligence, and her role as mentor to Isabel makes me Iike her even more. One of my favourite scenes is when Glenn’s character talks about writing a book on French women and how their scarves alone could fill entire chapter.  I love it!

Isabel meets Yves through Glenn Close’s character Olivia Pace and they become casual lovers, even throughout her affair with Edgar.
Sam Waterson, Stockard Channing, and Thomas Lennon are each excellent as members of Roxy and Isabel’s Santa Barbara-based family. The film is a love letter to Paris, which is of course one of the reasons why I enjoy watching it so much.  Director James Ivory presents a portrait of the city that’s so infused with romance that it’s impossible for Isabel to feel terribly displaced for too long.  It embraces the city’s food, culture and language enthusiastically. 

As we watch Roxy and Isabel ride through their individual romantic roller coasters, the two plots complement each other well. Isabel’s might superficially feel a bit frivolous, but the seriousness of her sister’s life diffuses some melancholy throughout her scenes. By crosscutting between the two narrative threads, the film seems to be both commenting on the inevitable fall that awaits the younger, more idealistic sister and suggests new possibilities for Roxy and when the film does end, I always feel that I am not ready yet because I would like to follow the characters around a little more as some of them were just beginning to get interesting.

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