Happily ever after or not, 'Le Divorce' is delightful

In James Ivory's chic "Le Divorce," it isn't April in Paris, but May/December. Isabel Walker (Kate Hudson), a visitor from California, launches into an affair with a suave 55-year-old Frenchman named Edgar (Thierry Lhermitte). The two become symbols of their respective countries: She's young, fresh and a bit unsophisticated; he's older, smooth as cognac and very set in his ways. Edgar's influence soon changes Isabel — she quickly acquires a French haircut, a Hermès bag and an elegant array of scarves — but her American independence can't be changed so easily.

Diane Johnson's 1997 best seller, on which the film is faithfully based, is a charmer; it's a contemporary comedy of manners spliced with a very Henry James/Edith Wharton-esque portrait of two cultures decorously mingling. (Note the heroine's name, reminiscent of Isabel Archer in James' "The Portrait of a Lady," the quintessential American abroad.) Ivory and his longtime collaborators, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and producer Ismail Merchant, are just the right handlers for this material; they combine their literary intelligence with a refreshingly light touch, and the result is breezy pleasure, complete with cultural commentary that never quite stings.

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"Le Divorce," with Kate Hudson, Naomi Watts, Thierry Lhermitte, Leslie Caron, Stockard Channing, Sam Waterston, Matthew Modine, Glenn Close. Directed by James Ivory, from a screenplay by Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, based on the novel by Diane Johnson. 115 minutes. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements and sexual content. Several theaters.
Isabel has come to France to help her pregnant sister Roxeanne (Naomi Watts), and to figure out what to do with her own life. She arrives just in time to witness her sister's crisis: Roxy's husband (Melvil Poupaud, so handsome he could be an Air France advertisement) has left her for another woman. But Isabel's focus wanders to Edgar, Roxy's uncle by marriage.

Plans for "le divorce" then unfold, with Roxy's wealthy French in-laws (Leslie Caron, as Roxy's mother-in-law Suzanne, runs the family like a very elegant CEO), the sisters' American parents (Stockard Channing, Sam Waterston), and a host of other characters raising impeccable eyebrows at each other about the Isabel/Edgar situation, and other less tasty topics.

The French, we're told, prefer not to talk about money — but this divorce involves a potentially valuable painting belonging to Roxy, so talk they must. (In one scene in the dining room at Suzanne's chateau, everyone discusses the disappointment of the cheese course, and everyone knows that something else is meant.)

"Le Divorce" is a wonderfully populated film, with fine actors cruising in and out. Glenn Close, long hair streaming behind her, is a hilariously pretentious expatriate writer (complete with a dog named Flaubert); plummy-voiced Stephen Fry, in a tiny cameo as an art dealer, devours the word "panache" like it's a mouthful of chocolate mousse.

The two sweet-faced blondes at the film's center create a lovely sisterly bond, with the ever-sunny Hudson providing a balance for the alternately despondent and serene Watts (whose role is more challenging, as we first meet Roxy at the peak of crisis). And some lovely work is contributed by that Hermès purse, in a fantasy moment that brings back happy memories of the French classic "The Red Balloon."

As always in a Merchant-Ivory movie, the details are perfection. Watch closely in a late scene, as the Walker family arrives en masse at Suzanne's estate; the moment is shot through a window, from Suzanne's point of view, and for a split second the picture wavers, from a ripple in the glass. That's the ripple of old glass and old money, and it speaks far louder than any words.

Moira Macdonald: mmacdonald@seattletimes.com