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copyright © 2001 - 2004 VideoVista
cast: Kate Hudson, Naomi Watts, Glenn Close, Stockard Channing, and Matthew Modine
director: James Ivory
117 minutes (12) 2003
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2 retail
Also available to buy on video
[released 2 February]
reviewed by John Percival
This comedy from Merchant Ivory is a story of contemporary Americans living in Paris.
Based on the novel by Diane Johnson, the film follows the story of two American stepsisters.
Isabel Walker (Kate Hudson) arrives in Paris to visit her pregnant sister Roxy (Naomi Watts)
on the same day that Roxy's French husband leaves her. So follows the divorce and central
interest in a painting owned by the Walkers but which the husband's family have an interest
in claiming. However the legal complications and culture shocks are complicated by Isabel's
affair with Roxy's uncle-in-law, a diplomat.
The film is a heavily stylised view on the way America perceives France
and Europe as a whole. For the most part, France is seen as an extremely colourful place
with one foot deep in the past and another very much in the modern day, and extremely
aristocratic. Also, it is a landscape filled with eccentric people who have replaced their
emotions with rules of etiquette, as even a love affair is bound by protocol. We are led
to believe that the emotionally free Americans essentially threaten the French families,
but it is the sisters who adapt to French life. Isabel's unexplained transformation into a
sophisticated cosmopolitan Parisian is seen almost as making her ugly, as her bouncy long
blonde curls are replaced with a shorted straight haircut. Similarly jeans and bra tops are
removed in favour of lingerie, suits and expensive handbags.
The French men are portrayed as physically weak and distant, apparently
romantic to a fault but emotionally redundant. This is highlighted by the story of Tellman
(Matthew Modine), who is a passionate American dealing with his wife's infidelity, but the
French thwart his efforts in this by closing ranks on him. He tries to get revenge on his
wife, by instigating an affair with the wife of his wife's lover, Roxy, but his attempts to
be seductive like the French eventually end in the murder of his wife and Roxy's husband.
It is interesting to note that during the whole of the divorce proceedings
the main focus appears to be on a painting and not on the couple's little girl or their unborn
child. The painting is the centre of great debate about its authenticity. It could be worth
thousands or it could be worth millions and the French family's interest in the painting is
supposed to reveal their greed for the money, although we are reminded on several occasions
that French people talk about everything except money. It is tricky to see how a comedy can
be made out of a subject like divorce but the comedy in this film lies in the cross-cultural
differences. The differences between the French and American characters are so vast, that at
times they appear to be alien races to each other. There is very little middle ground between
the two, but that does not exclude marriages and romantic entanglements. However both of the
The chemistry between Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts is good but not amazing.
Hudson is incredibly beautiful and her transformation into the hard, smoking Parisian is a
shame, but I think deliberate. There are a host of well-known actors in this film but each
appears unchallenged in their role and their performances are not dazzling. A couple of weeks
after watching the film you will be hard pressed to remember Glenn Close's role as the American
Professor living in Paris. Stockard Channing is more memorable and there is also a good cameo
by Stephen Fry who hilariously highlights further differences, although this time between the
French and English.
There is also a lot of French dialogue in this film and it is designed to
be a barrier to the viewer. However it is a barrier not to hard to overcome with the use of
subtitles. The film is quite a funny comedy which, although serious at times and not demanding
enough of the cast, shows some stunning scenes and views of Paris. It is also interesting to
see that what is essentially an American view of France, is almost as good as the British view
of the French.