James Ivory's rare excursions outside period settings have shown little evidence of any feeling for contemporary action. "Le Divorce" does nothing to change that. A bloodless adaptation of novelist Diane Johnson's upscale chick-lit success, this supposed comedy of manners about Americans in Paris feels artificial at every turn.

James Ivory’s rare excursions outside period settings have shown little evidence of any feeling for contemporary action. “Le Divorce” does nothing to change that. A bloodless adaptation of novelist Diane Johnson’s upscale chick-lit success, this supposed comedy of manners about Americans in Paris feels artificial at every turn, its characters so devoid of backstory and nuance their behavior often makes little sense. Fox Searchlight could get mileage out of the book’s many fans, but this looks unlikely to hit the high end of the Merchant-Ivory commercial spectrum.

Aside from the appealing parenthesis of 1998’s near-contemporary “A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries” — set in the 1960s and ’70s and offering another view of Americans in the French capital — Ivory has ventured into the present in only one feature during the past 20 years — 1989’s similarly unfocused “Slaves of New York.”

Stiff self-awareness, fastidious attention to behavioral mores and general restraint imposed on the characters by the director and regular co-scripter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala work elegantly to elicit the underlying passions in period literary adaptations like “Howards End” and “Remains of the Day.” But here, the approach seems antiquated and precious, and contributes to a failure to make the principal characters grounded or emotionally accessible.

Story of two American sisters kicks off when Isabel (Kate Hudson) arrives in Paris to visit her married, pregnant poet sister Roxeanne (Naomi Watts) just in time to catch the latter’s husband Charles-Henri (Melvil Poupaud) abandoning the family for new lover Magda (Rona Hartner).

Introduced as level-headed, Isabel then instantly forgets Roxeanne’s troubles, hooking up first with a radical-chic lover (Romain Duris), then dumping him for Charles-Henri’s aloof married uncle Edgar (Thierry Lhermitte), a high-profile politico.

If the intention is to show a Jamesian unformed American swept up and transformed by new cultural surroundings, it doesn’t translate. Instead, Isabel just seems like a self-absorbed flake. Hers and other courses of action were carefully paved in the book, but they come from nowhere onscreen, making the characters remote and lacking in definition.

Equally distancing is Roxeanne’s poorly justified refusal to file for divorce or to take Charles-Henri to the cleaners. While Hudson struggles to make an inconsistent character either real or sympathetic, Watts is saddled with an entirely blank slate of an erratic woman who’s frustratingly helpless and non-reactive. She attempts suicide one minute, then is sniffing roses and mulling baby names the next.

With neither the light touch of comedy nor the emotional heft of drama, the action busily trips along in an uninvolving way, tossing in supporting characters that registered in the book, but here seem to hover about with little purpose.

Donning a gray fright wig to give her the air of an American ex-pat literary bohemian, Glenn Close brings some sense of wisdom to the proceedings. But other characters are condensed to ineffectual degrees, and much of the large cast is wasted. Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston look merely bemused as the girls’ parents; Stephen Fry contributes a familiar caricature as an impossibly posh Christie’s rep; Bebe Neuwirth has little to do as an art appraiser; Jean-Marc Barr barely figures as a family legal adviser and new suitor for Roxeanne; and, most embarrassingly, Matthew Modine seems to be in another movie as Magda’s spurned husband.

Some of the French cast members make more of an impression in smaller, more subtly drawn roles.

The closest “Le Divorce” comes to mustering any complexity is in the subdued friction between Roxeanne’s family and Charles-Henri’s, headed with coolly manipulative authority by poised matriarch Suzanne (Leslie Caron).

While the portrait of the French is not entirely flattering, the scripters have some fun playing with Gallic-American cultural contradictions and the vastly different views on morality, marriage, adultery and money.

Despite the customarily classy Merchant-Ivory production values, the film is visually quite vanilla, and Pierre Lhomme’s widescreen lensing fails to harness much of the City of Light’s magic. Ivory’s few imaginative touches just seem awkward and incongruous, notably two mannered montage inserts and a whimsical fantasy moment when the red crocodile Hermes handbag that also was a leitmotif of the book flies over the Paris skyline.

Le Divorce

Production

A Fox Searchlight Pictures release of a Merchant Ivory production in association with Radar Pictures. Produced by Ismail Merchant, Michael Schiffer. Executive producers, Ted Field, Scott Kroopf, Erica Huggins. Co-producers, Paul Bradley, Richard Hawley. Directed by James Ivory. Screenplay, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Ivory, based on Diane Johnson's novel.

Crew

Camera (color, Panavision widescreen), Pierre Lhomme; editor, John David Allen; music, Richard Robbins; production designer, Frederic Benard; costume designer, Carol Ramsey; sound (Dolby Digital), Ludovic Henault; line producer, Rahila Bootwala; assistant director, George Every; casting, Annette Trumel. Reviewed at Disney screening room, New York, July 16, 2003. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 117 MIN.

With

Isabel Walker - Kate Hudson Roxeanne de Persand - Naomi Watts Maitre Bertram - Jean-Marc Barr Suzanne de Persand - Leslie Caron Margreeve Walker - Stockard Channing Olivia Pace - Glenn Close Yves - Romain Duris Piers Janely - Stephen Fry Antoine de Persand - Samuel Labarthe Roger Walker - Thomas Lennon Edgar Cosset - Thierry Lhermitte Louvre Expert - Daniel Mesguich Tellman - Matthew Modine Julia Manchevering - Bebe Neuwirth Charles-Henri de Persand - Melvil Poupaud Charlotte de Persand - Nathalie Richard Madame Florian - Catherine Samie Chester Walker - Sam Waterston Magda - Rona Hartner

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