“Le Beaufort n’est pas correct…”

James Ivory’s 2003 adaptation of the Diane Johnson’s Le Divorce is one of the best comedy-of-manners of the culture clash between the American and the French–particularly the upper-class French, who are as unfathomable to Americans as aliens from another planet.

The life in the country, the estate, the horses, the wine, and how life revolves around a meal, and an entire afternoon is ruined because of spoiled cheese.  There’s that scene during a lunch at the Persand’s country house with Roxy (Naomi Watts) and Isabel’s (Kate Hudson) parents, played by Sam Waterston and Stockard Channing–two of our poshest, cerebral actors, where a converstation by Waterston is harshly interuppted by Leslie Caron spitting out a wedge of cheese: “Le Beaufort n’est pas correct…c’est pourri!” The entire family looks disappointed and disdainful–the spoiled cheese is a mini crisis, like finding out your neighbor has been run down by a car.  The Americans look around at each other, confused and frustrated.

This a wonderful movie, about two very different cultures, one guileless, effusive and emotional–the Americans, and the other, cool, reserved, but crafty and duplicitous–the French. And the food in the movie is lovely to look at. Delicate roast lamb from Mt Saint Michel, glistening ruby red Bordeaux and claret, the restaurant lunch that Roxy and Isabel share with their parents–courses of langoustine, steak au poivre, endive salad…you get positively dizzy from the heady experience.

Isabel (Kate Hudson) and Antoine de Persand (Samuel LaBarthe) over the most decadent lunch, baby lamb raised near Mont-Saint-Michel

Food among the Persands, like the Archers or the van der Luydens in The Age of Innocence, is a highly ritualized means of reinforcing their power and wealth through veiled conversations about political scandals and money, by showing off to their guests the kind of food they can afford, and uniting as a family…”Je pense de ma famille!” Suzanne (Leslie Caron) argues with her brother Edgar (Thierry Lhermitte) when he indulges in a reckless affair with the young Isabel.

I love Le Divorce, because its one of the last movies James Ivory has made before Ismail Merchant died.  Its one of the finest movies of its kind, beautifully cast, highly literate, and visually gorgeous.


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