Le Divorce Director Returns to Pickens Theater

By Loren King

Director and Oscar-winning screenwriter James Ivory sure loves Newport and the Jane Pickens Theater.

The legendary director of such screen classics as “A Room with a View” (1985), “Maurice” (1987) and “Howards End” (1992) has visited the JPT several times over the last few years to screen his films and chat with the audience. Ivory’s most recent visit on March 11 came just one week after he won the Oscar for his adapted screenplay for “Call Me by Your Name,” a summer romance set in Italy starring Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer. The honor distinguished the 89-year-old Ivory as the oldest competitive Oscar winner in Academy history.

During that visit, Ivory screened one of his masterpieces, “The Remains of the Day” (1993). Afterward, during a Q&A hosted by Chuck Hinman of Rhode Island National Public Radio, Ivory asked the crowd, “Are you O.K. with me coming back? [“The Remains of the Day”] was a big hit. The next one may be a flop. But I’m bringing it because I like it.”

Ivory makes good on that promise Dec. 2 when he’ll appear at the JPT with his 2003 comedy “Le Divorce.” Adapted by Ivory and his frequent collaborator, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, from Diane Johnson’s popular 1997 novel, the film received largely mixed reviews when it was released. The screening is at 1 p.m., followed by a 3 p.m. conversation with Ivory again hosted by Hinman.

Although many of Ivory’s films are rich with wry observational humor, “Le Divorce” is a more traditional culture-clash comedy. Kate Hudson is in winning form as Isabel Walker, a young woman who arrives in Paris from Santa Barbara to visit her half-sister, Roxie (Naomi Watts). Pregnant with her second child, Roxie is coping with a rocky marriage to a French artist (Melvil Poupaud) from an insufferable bourgeois family with Leslie Caron as the matriarch.

Caron is just one of an ensemble of delectable supporting players. “Le Divorce” also boasts Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston as Roxie and Isabel’s American parents, and Glenn Close as an expatriate American writer with a past.

With Roxie overwhelmed by domestic travails, Isabel escapes to explore Paris on her own, engaging in a series of social and romantic adventures that allow her to reinvent herself. The comedy of manners is also a love letter to romance-infused Paris, where the movie was shot.

Ivory’s films often examine the idea of finding oneself abroad, most notably in “A Room with a View,” about a young British woman and her aunt (Helena Bonham Carter and Maggie Smith) who vacation in Italy.

Before “Le Divorce,” Ivory directed two other notable films set in France. “Quartet” (1981) starred Maggie Smith, Isabelle Adjani and Alan Bates and took place in 1927 Paris, and “Jefferson in Paris” (1995) followed Nick Nolte as Thomas Jefferson when he was the U.S. ambassador to the court of Louis XVI against the backdrop of the French Revolution.

Ivory won his first Oscar earlier this year, but he was nominated three times for directing, for “A Room with a View,” “Howards End” and “The Remains of the Day,” all made in collaboration with producer Ismail Merchant. Their professional and personal partnership lasted 44 years, from 1961 until Merchant’s death in 2005. During that time, Merchant Ivory Productions made more than 40 films, with many regarded as masterpieces.

They were often joined by Jhabvala, the third member of their celebrated trio, who scripted 23 Merchant Ivory films, winning Oscars for her screenplays for “A Room with a View” and “Howards End.” She died in 2013. In his Oscar acceptance speech, Ivory paid a poignant tribute to his two longtime friends and creative collaborators.