Two Americans in Paris, Merchant-Ivory Style

James Ivory’s Le Divorce , produced by Ishmail Merchant and Michael Schiffer and adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Mr. Ivory, retains much of the bite and humor of Diane Johnson’s wondrously prophetic 1997 novel, which explores the various ways the French and the Americans rub each other the wrong way without much trying. Our irreconcilable differences on food alone are enough to set off the din of discord.

The good news is that the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala triumvirate has once more scaled the heights of the “cinema of manners” achieved in their repertoire of picture-perfect period pieces, including A Room With a View (1986), Howards End (1992), The Remains of the Day (1993) and The Golden Bowl (2001). Messrs. Merchant and Ivory’s sober musings on the written and spoken word have too often become undervalued amid the frequently overvalued visual pyrotechnics that obliterate the thoughts and feelings of the characters, as well as the narrative engines that convey these characters to their separate and conjoined destinies.

Le Divorce is essentially the story of a much-talked-about Franco-American divorce that never takes place because of a violent and completely unforeseen intervention. After much stress and strain on the allegorical level, America and France are finally, if reluctantly, reconciled. (One hopes this will be the case in the current real-life crisis in the affairs of the two nations.) Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts make good casting sense as Isabel Walker and Roxanne de Persand, two American sisters, or rather half-sisters, who find themselves entangled in messy liaisons with two Frenchmen from the same upper-class French family. The irrepressible Isabel, who comes to France to salvage a failing career, finds herself in the midst of a stormy separation between Roxanne (known as Roxy) and Charles-Henri, who also have their 3-year-old daughter Gennie to reconcile. Roxy also discovers that she’s pregnant, to make matters a little more complicated.

The story is told mainly from the point of view of Isabel, who has her work cut out for her, not only in consoling the secretive Roxy and finding out what Charles-Henri is up to, but also in scrounging around for some temporary jobs in Paris to pay her keep. The family’s affairs are in chaos; the only reassuring sign of stability in Roxy’s turbulent household is a family painting from her home in California-a portrait of Saint Ursula by Georges de La Tour or one of his disciples, depending on which art experts are consulted. The Getty Museum in Los Angeles has expressed an interest in the painting, and Margeeve Walker (Stockard Channing)-Isabel’s stepmother and Roxy’s mother-her husband, Chester (Sam Waterston) and especially their eager-beaver son, Edgar, are determined not to let go of it-especially once they learn that Charles’ family has put in a claim for the painting as part of the divorce settlement. A curator from the Louvre is already nosing around Roxy’s apartment to verify the painting’s authenticity.

Meanwhile, Roxy takes Isabel to her first artsy Paris saloon frequented by American expatriates. There, Isabel is introduced to Olivia Pace (Glenn Close), a fashionable writer who hires her to help sort through her papers, which are to be donated to an American university. By this time, Isabel has learned directly from Charles-Henri that he is madly in love with Magda Tellman (Rona Hartner), a Czech mother of five married to Douglas Tellman (Mathew Modine), an American EuroDisney executive who’s taken to skulking menacingly outside Roxy’s apartment building in the hope of catching his wife with Charles-Henri.

Every Sunday before ” le divorce ” is set in motion, Roxy goes into the country with her husband and daughter for lunch with Charles-Henri’s family. Presiding over these ritual gatherings is the magisterial matriarch, Suzanne de Persand (Leslie Caron). At her side are her various grown children, their wives and husbands, and her very charismatic middle-aged brother, Edgar Cosset (Thierry Lhermitte.) Isabel is immediately attracted to Edgar when she later sees him expounding his political views on a television talk show, and she pursues him shamelessly until he boldly asks her to be his mistress, and she equally boldly consents.

For her part, Roxy doesn’t hesitate to go to the Sunday family lunch alone-but when she tries to confront them about Charles-Henri’s outrageous behavior, his family deftly changes the subject. Roxy doesn’t want a divorce and refuses to agree to one, despite Charles-Henri’s desperate pleas. His lawyer even threatens her with the loss of her children in a French court, prompting Roxy to take even more desperate action.

Though all the tangles of betrayal, frustration, misunderstanding and heartbreak threaten to plunge the proceedings into the abyss of endless recriminations, relief comes with an unexpected burst of melodramatic violence that magically produces a happily comic resolution of sorts and keeps the film buoyantly bubbly until the final fade-out. The film’s greatest achievement, however, is in keeping a dizzying variety of characters at odds with each other without any breach of good manners, and without descending to facile stereotypes and caricatures.

Interestingly, there’s been some toning down of the book’s depiction of the inbred French hostility to Americans. Perhaps it’s just as well that a conciliatory gesture was made, since it’s time for France and America to let bygones be bygones.

Glory Days

Gary Ross’ Seabiscuit , from his own screenplay, based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand, clicks on all cylinders as a technical achievement in re-creating a piece of racetrack history, though its larger sociological statements are more than a little overblown and oversimplified. The real Seabiscuit was an impressively heartwarming horse, no question about it. I was 10 years old in 1938, when Seabiscuit beat War Admiral, the 1937 Triple Crown winner, in a specially staged two-horse race at the Pimlico racetrack in Maryland. Far from being glued to my radio for the result, I was barely aware of these two horses. As a fanatical baseball fan-much to the disgust of my serious-minded Greek immigrant father-I didn’t have the slightest interest in horse-racing. On the streets of Avenue D in Brooklyn, the kids were all excited about a young centerfielder for the New York Yankees named Joe DiMaggio. We were also perhaps the only Republican welfare family in Brooklyn to vote for Alf Landon instead of Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. I mention these admittedly trivial memories only to emphasize the vast complexity of American life during the Great Depression.

Some reviewers have complained that Seabiscuit is very slow getting started as it elaborately tracks the trajectories of three damaged lives that ultimately converge on a demoralized horse who becomes a champion. Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) works his way up from the assembly line and a bicycle shop to become a millionaire automobile mogul, but his son is killed in a car accident. Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) is one of a dying breed of horse whisperers who winds up riding the rails after the Depression sets in. Ned Pollard (Tobey Maguire) is embittered after being abandoned by his Irish immigrant family. And though Seabiscuit himself is a horse of noble lineage, he is small, with wobbly knees and a slight limp. His early trainers dismiss him. Out of all these disparate defeats is forged the united will to be victorious. Isn’t that what America is all about? Well, yes and no. America is all about a lot of other things as well, good and bad.

Still, I can’t find fault with the actors-including, in addition to Messrs. Bridges, Cooper and Maguire, Elizabeth Banks as Howard’s second wife, Marala, and the real-life Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, who plays Seabiscuit’s replacement jockey George Woolf so vividly it’s as if he’s been acting all his life. Nor can I criticize the amazingly fluid cinematography of John Schwartzman, the production design of Jeannine Oppewall, the race design of jockey Chris McCarron (who appears in the movie as Charles Kurtzinger, War Admiral’s jockey) or the work of one Rusty Hendrickson, the head wrangler for the many contemporary horses required to simulate the racing scene of the middle and late 30′s.

I certainly can’t cast doubt on writer-director Gary Ross’ reported devotion to his subject. My only complaint is that he doesn’t show the entire race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral, which can be seen so thrillingly in the newsreel footage shown in the PBS and A&E programs on Seabiscuit. But everything is forgotten and forgiven when Seabiscuit runs his last comeback race at Santa Anita and wins just before the final fade-out. After all, horses are ancient and enduring stars of cinema, which was born when Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) decided to prove that racehorses lift all four legs off the ground at the same time when they’re in full stride. In my later life, I had the privilege of seeing the immortal Secretariat race at Aqueduct Race Track. I only wish, in retrospect, that I had been caught up in all the excitement over Seabiscuit in my childhood. But the current movie and televison films are the next best thing to having been there at the time.

Free-Market Economy

Fernando León de Aronoa’s Mondays in the Sun , from his and Ignacio del Moral’s screenplay, is a Spanish film that’s as close to a William Saroyan play as I have ever seen, in that nothing much really happens for the longest time, even as several lives slip by ever closer to an unmarked and unremembered oblivion. Santa (Javier Bardem) is the reigning philosopher-king of a drab group of unemployed shipyard workers who can’t adjust to the catastrophic consequences of free-market globalization, which our own economists in their infinite wisdom tell us is all for the best, despite the “temporary” dislocations of workers. After all, if ships can be made cheaper in South Korea than in the northern Spanish coastal city where the movie takes place, who are the workers to complain? (Perhaps if economists’ jobs could be transferred to Cairo or Calcutta in accordance with the immutable laws of the “free” market …. )

Santa and his friends begin to raise some of these questions, but there is no one around to answer them. So they try to console each other at the local tavern, where they manage to display enormous capacities for both resignation and compassion, with only very occasional outbursts of fruitlessly petty defiance. Mr. Aronoa makes his intentions quite clear in his director’s statement: “Cinema should deal with what it has at hand, with what it may forget because it doesn’t see it clearly, because it doesn’t want to see it. With local, everyday, prodigious stories.” In this respect, Mondays in the Sun is prodigiously uneventful, though its heart is in the right place. It would be easier to dismiss if it weren’t.