Spotlight: James Ivory

Fest's tribute just tickles the Ivory

PARIS — The brand-cum-sobriquet “Merchant Ivory” has become shorthand for “stodgy” or “formal and repressed.” But an even mildly attentive look at helmer James Ivory’s output over four decades reveals a consistent talent for transcribing intense emotions and the messy intricacies of human pursuits.

In Deauville to present his new film, “Le Divorce,” starring Kate Hudson, Naomi Watts, Glenn Close and Thierry Lhermitte, the 75-year-old helmer once again shows his knack for plugging high-profile thesps into stories whose literary or historical tentacles would exhaust many a younger director.

Ivory’s films never condone picture-pretty settings and pent-up feelings — they plead in favor of freedom and passion by critiquing restrictive conventional society.

In the flesh, Ivory projects the handsome patrician sturdiness of a David Lean or an Alain Resnais — he happens to look the way an audience wants its film directors to look. But to speak of Ivory and omit the mention of producer Ismail Merchant, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and composer Richard Robbins seems as rude as hailing Lewis without Clark, for this intrepid quartet has mapped out their corner of the arthouse territory together.

Ivory’s best known literary adaptations (“Howards End,” “A Room With a View,” “The Remains of the Day”) reinforce an aud’s received wisdom — wise or not — about eras in which it is no longer possible to live.

But with his new film, he tackles contemporary society and its mores, but like his other works, set in other eras, “Le Divorce” deals with issues that impact relationships and social convention.

“When I face an ethical quandary in my own life,” Ivory stated a few years ago at Cannes, “I sometimes ask myself, ‘What would E.M. Forster do?’ ”

Any budding director contemplating a bigscreen literary adaptation could do worse than to ask himself “What would James Ivory do?”