Le Divorce
a film by James Ivory
from a screenplay by Ruth Prawar Jhabvala and James Ivory
adapted from the novel by Diane Johnson

The latest film from the Merchant-Ivory team, with a screenplay by regular collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and James Ivory (who also directs), adapted from the novel by Diane Johnson, showcases both their strengths and their weaknesses. The notable strength is the seamless, apparently effortless skill with which this well-co-ordinated crew bring locations and situations to life on the screen. The primary weakness is how this hard-won facility seems to blind them sometimes, to the basic challenge of their craft that lies in telling an absorbing story.

Merchant-Ivory are one of a handful of filmmaking ensembles - a group of writers, directors, producers who have gathered a talented professional crew, forging wonderful working relationships over time and through a string of mostly successful films. Like the groups that have grown up around Woody Allen, Ang Lee or even Clint Eastwood (as director), these people have learned to work together, to co-ordinate their vision of a project in a way that produces a highly polished piece of work.

An important part of their early films, which focused primarily on literary adaptations from the early 20th Century, was to get the sense of time and place absolutely right - and this they did. They were good at it even in the beginning, and have just gone on getting better. Their films have a look that has been both parodied and widely copied, and has been a hallmark of their output.

Such admirable competence - and the crew who exercise it - certainly make their work easier on one level. They don't have to learn to co-operate all over again with each new production - as is the case for most major films. They can achieve a "look" - a cohesive overall production design that incorporates locations, sets, decoration, costumes, lighting and camera-work - with relative efficiency.

This proficiency ought to give them more time and energy to devote to the emotional core of the film, the drama or comedy - the human interchanges that animate the picture they have constructed through creative technical skills. Unfortunately, in some of their films - including this one - it doesn't.

There is some truth to the notion that adversity breeds and sharpens creativity. One of the problems for many successful "auteurist" directors - those who control production of a film in a way analogous to that in which an author controls a book - is that success can breed a degree of complacency. We all tend to enjoy doing what we are good at, and filmmakers are no different. Then competence and facility can become a trap.

When a style and system is developed that works, that is enjoyable, there is a tendency to gravitate to it, and material is not only selected for its appropriateness to that style, but also molded to fit it. This is not automatically a bad thing, but the risk is that of falling into a rut - doing the easy, comfortable thing rather than the challenging and risky one.

Merchant-Ivory made their reputation creating films of visual beauty and culturally-exotic charm. But in their best films - mostly based on the work of English novelist E. M. Forster - those carefully crafted images served as background for stories of human struggle and transformation. The characters - created by the master novelist and for the most part faithfully interpreted by the screenplay - were boldly three dimensional and stood out strongly, even against the beautiful craftsmanship of the production.

But it is hard to find material as good as Forster to adapt, and it is hard to fit adaptations of other material into a format that evolved around characters and themes as full of vitality as those Forster develops. This has been a problem for the Merchant-Ivory team of late. Their films look as good as ever. They have outstanding casts. They are adapted from well-written original material. But somehow they fail to coalesce into something that is as meaningful as their work with such Forster classics as A Passage to India, Maurice, Room With A View and Howard's End.

The point is, this company has produced some wonderful, ground-breaking work - serious, adult, dramatic films that have provided a welcome antidote to the "action-adventure" and "blockbuster" mentalities that have dominated American film in the last twenty years. Their recent films show evidence of the skill they bring to the process of making films, and even their lesser efforts are far more interesting and gratifying to watch than most mainstream movies.

The "but" is that their recent output seems to be struggling to find the powerful dramatic center that draws the narrative together and keeps the "style" of their work from overwhelming the "substance.

Le Divorce is a case in point. The film has a stellar cast - all of whom perform with competence and confidence. It is beautifully filmed. The productions values are of the first order. Yet it comes across not as a moving story of individuals in transformation against a cross-cultural divide, but rather as a series of vignettes, which seem somehow isolated and disjointed, despite the fact that the same cast of characters is involved.

The titular divorce is that between American Roxanne Walker (Naomi Watts) and her French husband, Charles-Henri de Persand (Melvil Poupaud). But the attraction between Roxanne and Charles-Henri, whose character is badly written but even worse realized by Poupaud - the one clunker among an excellent ensemble - is incomprehensible. He is self-absorbed, vain, flighty, inarticulate, and insensitive - and those are his good qualities.

It is impossible to imagine how Roxanne, who seems like a fairly normal person - could ever gotten involved with him - to the point of marrying him, living with him for several years and having two children with him - and not have realized what a snobbish, selfish brat he is. Given what we see of Charles-Henri and understand about him almost instantly, her surprise and disappointment and the emotional turmoil that ensues is stunningly unconvincing. Since her reaction is the dramatic mainspring of the film, the failure to produce any believable interpersonal dynamic here undermines the whole of the main story line.

Her sister Isabel's (Kate Hudson) liaison with Charles-Henri's uncle Edgar (Thierry L'hermitte) seems contrived - there is no apparent chemistry between the characters and while his attraction to the nubile Isabel is credible, except for his wealth and his position there seems to be nothing - no heat, no brilliance, no passion - to attract her to him. So we are left to conclude that either the relationship is a mere plot point, or that Isabel is superficial twit - which severely undermines any interest we might have in her story.

Then, there are distracting sub-plots, one involving a valuable unknown masterpiece of Renaissance art that belongs to the Walkers, and another the crazed American husband of the Russian woman with whom Charles-Henri runs off, which seem like creaky Dei ex Machinae of such obvious artificiality that they further damage any credibility the plot may have left.

At the same time, there are some very effective scenes. Glenn Close - as expatriate poet Olivia Pace - simply crackles with the wisdom of experience, and in moments with both Isabel and Roxanne suggests a sense of almost mystical insight that could well have been pursued to greater profit - but the exchanges are treated as expository rather than developmental.

A scene between Leslie Caron - as Roxanne's very traditional French mother-in-law Suzanne de Persand, and Nathalie Richard as Suzanne's sister-in-law Charlotte - wife of her philandering, aristocratic, middle-aged brother Edgar, (who takes up an affair with the much-younger Isabel) starts off with the promise of incisive, Balzacian insight into the psychological mechanisms - and the psychic cost - of an elaborate French system of manners developed and evolved over centuries.

But it fails to deliver, offering instead impersonal, hackneyed generalizations and swiftly moving on. The tremendous and fascinating charge Caron develops for her character, compounded of repression, discipline, anger, pride and regret, is never allowed to release, but simply fades quietly away.

And there is more of the same - performances of power - or at the very least a laudable level of skill from Sam Waterson, Stockard Channing, Thierry L'hermitte and others, and wonderful little cameos from the likes of Stephen Fry (as a Christie's art expert) and Bebe Neuwirth (as a Getty Museum executive). But the fine performances do not link together into a consistent and satisfying whole.

Much of Merchant-Ivory's work has centered around a confrontation of cultures that leads to inner confrontation and transformation in the characters. It has been a theme they have examined sensitively and provocatively with great success. That seems to have been the intent here as well and some of the most effective and appealing scenes are those that contrast European sensibilities - as personified by the de Persands - against those of the very American Walkers. But these scenes - which are full of wit and insight - don't merge into the central narrative purpose of the film.

The lesson of the cultural clash in this film seems to be that Americans are Americans and French are French, and confrontation leads not to transformation and enrichment, but to some sort of vague rapprochement, with a smug, insular sense of superiority on both sides. Even if this were true (as it probably is in some cases) - it wouldn't make much of a premise for a dramatic film.

There is a lot to enjoy in this film, in spite of its lack of dramatic clarity. Individual performances sparkle in many places, affirming James Ivory's reputation as an "actor's director." The look of the film is post-card wonderful - as a travelogue of "Paris and Environs," it is enticing. There is some clever and trenchant social satire - skewering the prejudices and limitations of French and Americans alike.

As a moving and meaningful narrative, it never quite comes together, but even so, it is an interesting and enjoyable way to spend a few late-summer hours. It is actually a credit to the proven ability of the Merchant-Ivory team that a film with so many good features can be seen as something of a disappointment.

But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.z