The intrigue of Paris and the spunk of a vibrant young American girl team up in Diane Johnson’s 1998 novel turned 2003 film, “Le Divorce.”

The story begins as film school drop-out Isabel Walker travels to Paris to help take care of her pregnant step-sister Roxy and young niece Gennie. Upon her arrival Isabel finds that all is not well between her American sister and French brother-in-law, Charles-Henri.

In a style portrayed in the book to be far from uncommon in the French lifestyle, Charles-Henri is having an affair with another woman. He abandons his pregnant wife and young daughter, leaving Isabel to pick up the pieces of her sister’s life.

Eager to experience Paris and all the city has to offer, Isabel juggles family responsibilities with a life of her own. Her days are spent caring for Gennie and working for author and fellow American in Paris, Olivia Pace, while by night Isabel is an active young woman eagerly exploring the dating scene.

Isabel’s loyalty is called into question when she gets involved with Charles-Henri’s older and politically influential Uncle Edgar, from whom Isabel receives a flashy, expensive gift of a red Kelly bag.

Forced to keep the affair a secret in order to protect an emotional Roxy, Isabel enjoys her frequent meetings with Edgar, where he shows her the best restaurants and performances that Paris has to offer.

Isabel finds herself falling in love with Edgar, meanwhile trying to support her sister through a complicated divorce against her will.

Johnson creates dynamic characters possessing emotional appeal that a reader finds easy to adore. It’s impossible not to relate to or at the very least recognize in someone else Isabel’s naivet and youthfulness or Roxy’s idealism.

However, what is most striking and impressive about “Le Divorce” is not just the characters but the social commentary Johnson includes in the book. Typical qualities of the Americans and French are continuously contrasted in the book, and actually become, in large part, to blame for Roxy and Charles-Henri’s problems.

While some of the commentary may seem stereotypical, Johnson manages to poke fun at ideas and customs that are so clearly American it is impossible not to laugh.

At times events in the novel seem too far-fetched and dramatic to ever happen in real life. However, the strength of the characters keep the story together and eventually causes the reader to enjoy the moments that are more fantasy than reality.

“Le Divorce” manages to capture readers on many levels, from hilarity and truth in social commentary, to emotional appeal, down to the beautiful backdrop of Paris. Johnson is as much a psychologist as a writer and is brilliant in her careful study of human beings.

The Film

Bearing the same name as the book and a similar chain of events, the film “Le Divorce” brings with it a star-filled cast. Kate Hudson plays an adorable, happy-go-lucky Isabel alongside Naomi Watts’s idealistic and highly emotional portrayal of Roxy.

Glenn Close also stars as Olivia Pace, an American writer and Isabel’s boss who offers advice and insight to Isabel.

As is often the case when screenplays are written based on novels, the plot of “Le Divorce” was simplified. While at times the modifications were necessary in order to keep the film from seeming unbelievable, some crucial moments were eliminated, taking with them a better understanding of the characters.

The characters of the film, while still charming in a more light-hearted sense, lack the depth possessed by the Isabel and Roxy of the novel.

Much of the clever and thought-provoking social commentary that made the novel stand out was lost when the story was adapted for the screen.

One clever part of the film is the use of the red Kelly bag. Toward the end of the film the bag is shown floating through the air, moving the action from one scene into the next. It is also a clever symbol relating to Isabel’s feelings and her plan for the future.

The soundtrack of the film is stereotypical of the kind of music one would expect to hear in a Parisian caf. While contributing to the overall appeal of the setting, the music is a little too close to the stereotype.

Overall, the film is still a cute story. But it is just that, a cute story, lacking any depth beyond face value. The setting helps to boost an otherwise mediocre film to a slightly better form of entertainment.

Paris lives up to its charming and romantic stereotype throughout the novel and film. The overall appeal of France is enough to make the average movie-goer or reader consider, at least for a second, traveling to France and testing out the real-life role of the American in Paris himself.

Egan can be reached at cegan@campustimes.org.



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