“So far, every French person I have met comes with three pieces of real estate—two in the country (one from each side of the family) and the Paris apartment,” explains Isabel Walker, the narrator of Diane Johnson’s novel Le Divorce. That sentence might well prompt most of the latest wave of French directors to hurl Johnson’s 1997 best seller across the room; in their country’s working-class and immigrant quarters, these filmmakers have found larger issues than the petty squabbles of the landed gentry. There is one cinematic team, however, that’s perfectly suited to Johnson’s tale of an unraveling Franco-American marriage and the possibly valuable painting that becomes the crux of the dispute: Merchant Ivory.

Set in Paris during the Clinton era, Johnson’s book is barely a period piece. Otherwise, however, it could have been written for costume-drama specialist James Ivory and his regular team, producer Ismail Merchant and scriptwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Not only are they well-versed in the culture-clash parables of Henry James, E.M. Forster, and the like, but they are endlessly fascinated by stuff. Even when not making films like The Golden Bowl and Howards End, whose stories turn on their characters’ possessions, they’re usually more interested in furnishings than characterization.

As Isabel tells the story, Le Divorce has considerably more sex than a Victorian- or Edwardian-age novel. But the split of poet Roxeanne de Persand (née Walker) and her painter husband, Charles-Henri de Persand, also features a trinity of significant objects: (1) the Walker family’s painting of St. Ursula, attributed to a student of Georges de La Tour and taken from California to Paris by Roxeanne, whose ownership must be settled by the courts after Charles-Henri leaves his pregnant wife for rollerblading Russian artiste Magda Tellman; (2) an Hermès handbag sent to Isabel by Edgar Cosset, a dashing womanizer who happens to be Charles-Henri’s uncle, after Isabel agrees to be Edgar’s mistress; and (3) a costly porcelain tureen owned by American-expat writer Olivia Pace and coveted by Isabel as the perfect gift for Edgar.

The saga of the tureen was one of the many things excised when co-scripters Ivory and Jhabvala adapted Le Divorce for the screen. (Also missing is Euro Disney, replaced in the climactic scene by the Eiffel Tower, perhaps in deference to the Mouse’s litigiousness.) A more crucial loss is Isabel’s interior voice, which is not always profound, but does give the novel more depth than the movie. Still, the scenario is elaborate enough to require more than a dozen reasonably well-known American, French, and other actors: Glenn Close plays Olivia. Sam Waterston and Stockard Channing play Isabel and Roxeanne’s parents, who arrive from Santa Barbara to protect their daughters—and their painting. Leslie Caron is Charles-Henri’s impeccably upscale, discreetly conniving mother and Nathalie Richard his sister. Subsidiary players include L’Auberge Espagnole star Romain Duris as another of Isabel’s lovers, Jean-Marc Barr as Roxeanne’s exceptionally sympathetic lawyer, Matthew Modine as Magda’s menacingly distraught husband, and Stephen Fry as a smug British art expert.

Crowded as it is, Le Divorce is not complex. The filmmakers have smoothed the few sharp edges of Johnson’s tale, diminishing interpersonal conflict, private anguish, and anything too shocking to American bourgeois sensibilities. (One notable adjustment is the age of Uncle Edgar, played by the 40-something Thierry Lhermitte, who is over 70 in the book.) The movie’s shallowness is embodied by the actresses portraying the Walker sisters: Kate Hudson is characteristically blank, but that befits the generally blithe young Isabel, newly arrived in Paris and willing to sample whatever the city offers. As Roxeanne, Naomi Watts is more of a problem. She is entirely too vivacious for a pregnant woman just abandoned by her husband and braving the intrigues of two competing families, so her most drastic act seems ungrounded in her character.

Of course, the movie is not supposed to be dark. It’s a comedy, although more in the sense that it’s not tragic rather than that it’s particularly funny. Ivory and Jhabvala have condensed rather than distilled Johnson’s tale, scanting the themes but leaving the central plot, some amusing asides, and, of course, plenty of lingering over worldly goods—including a gastro-porn sequence that depicts each of the impeccably art-directed dishes served in a lavish restaurant lunch. Facile, well-appointed, and slight, Le Divorce is not exactly a typical Merchant-Ivory film, but it’s far from an exceptional one.

The central character is young O-Shin (Nagiko Tohno), who’s sweet-natured and susceptible to falling in love with her clients. As the film opens, O-Shin obligingly hides a spoiled-brat samurai who got very drunk and apparently—he doesn’t remember—stabbed someone in a fight. Grateful to O-Shin for deflecting the authorities who were chasing him, Fusanosuke (Hidetaka Yoshioka) becomes a regular visitor. Fusanosuke is banned from the family home for his misadventure, and O-Shin dares imagine that she, a fallen woman, can find happiness with the disgraced samurai. Later, O-Shin gets involved with another customer, Ryosuke (Masatoshi Nagase), a rough-edged hard-luck case full of bitterness toward the people who’ve exploited him. As a potential savior, Ryosuke seems unreliable, but he proves himself—in a sequence that draws a crucial bit of plot from Junichiro Tanizaki’s classic novel The Makioka Sisters—when the remote geisha quarter is threatened by a flood.

O-Shin’s story is paralleled by that of a more experienced geisha, Kikuno (Misa Shimizu, the female lead in Shohei Imamura’s The Eel and Warm Water Under a Red Bridge). Kikuno also has two regular clients, but they’re less promising than O-Shin’s. The nicer one is an aged businessman, whereas the younger one is a gangster. When the film ends, Kikuno’s fate is still undetermined, although her situation is so picturesque that it seems sort of charming.

This prettiness is fundamental to Kumai’s approach. The film opens with an aerial shot that introduces the geisha quarter as a sort of stage set, and although nature intrudes on the story—notably in the form of the climactic typhoon—naturalism never does. A clean, well-lighted place where the women entertain themselves by reciting classic poetry, the geisha house is altogether too pleasant—at least when there are no men present. This idealized portrait of subjugation has little more bite than a Merchant-Ivory picture. But then again, perhaps The Sea Is Watching is intended less as an exposé than as a nostalgic celebration of a vanished era that, though oppressive, offered more refinement than contemporary Tokyo’s hostess bars and strip joints. Mizoguchi wouldn’t approve, but such sentimentality is typical of Kurosawa’s last few films.CP

The Sea Is Watching is presented in conjunction with “Kurosawa in Color,” an almost complete retrospective of the director’s later films, Aug. 8-21 at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. For more information, call (301) 495-6700.

More from WCP