Californians in Paris; Merchant Ivory, Too
On a sparkling April afternoon in the private garden of an elegant house near the Seine, James Ivory had shushed the actors, adjusted the lights and pointed the camera - but he was not about to call "Action!" on a party scene until the bells from a neighboring church had stopped ringing.
Such are the hazards of shooting on the Left Bank, where Mr. Ivory and the producer Ismail Merchant were making their latest film, "Le Divorce," which is set to open early next year. Based on the popular 1997 novel by the American writer Diane Johnson, the movie centers on the sentimental adventures of two California sisters in Paris - the pregnant housewife-poet Roxy (Naomi Watts, of "Mulholland Drive"), newly dumped by her French husband, and her visiting younger sister, Isabel (Kate Hudson), a recent college graduate who sticks around long enough to have some romantic entanglements of her own. As they visit the soirees and country houses where natives and expatriates mingle, "Le Divorce" becomes a wickedly observed tale of French-American relations, a crosscultural comedy of manners.
Glenn Close, who plays an American expatriate novelist, Olivia Pace, described it as "a very charming, clever, complex script about the clash of cultures and how different cultures perceive each other."
"It's like a modern Henry James story, totally," she said.
James has become something of a Merchant Ivory specialty, starting with "The Europeans" in 1979. And with the success of some of the team's later films, like "A Room With a View" (1985), "Howards End" (1991) and "The Remains of the Day" (1993), Merchant Ivory has become a brand name - as often scorned as admired - for stylish costume dramas about the English upper crust. The filmmakers are favorites in the arty precincts of Cannes and recently received a lifetime achievement award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. But their films vary more widely than the brand's image suggests. The Indian-born Mr. Merchant and the American-born Mr. Ivory have been together for four decades, living and making movies in New York, India and France as well as in England; their French productions include "Quartet" (1981), "Jefferson in Paris" (1995), "Surviving Picasso" (1996), "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries" (1998) and a movie Mr. Merchant directed in 1996, "The Proprietor."
"This is a film about human relations, set in a foreign country, made by foreigners," the soft-spoken, white-haired Mr. Ivory said during a break in the shooting of "Le Divorce." "That's what we do. Sometimes they're modern, sometimes they're not."
Carol Ramsey is a Los Angeles-based costume designer who has worked on four other Merchant Ivory productions. "The interesting thing about Jim," she said on the set, "is even if you're shooting a modern movie, it's like you're doing a period movie. Whether you're doing Victorian or the 40's or modern, it's not just `Let's make some cute little outfits.' It's `What do we have to do to make this observation about society?' "
Mr. Ivory, 74, first came to Paris more than 50 years ago, and he and Mr. Merchant, who is 65, have lived here on and off since 1980. Mr. Ivory is dry and reserved; Mr. Merchant dapper and solicitous, a legendary host and renowned cook who has made a lifestyle of mixing business with pleasure. For the birthday of the movie's French director of photography, Pierre Lhomme, Mr. Merchant whipped up dinner for 85 at the home that he and Mr. Ivory share in St.-Germain-des-PrØs. The two men cultivate relationships - the house in which they're shooting the party scene, like many of the film's locations, is a friend's - and many of the people on today's payroll, right down to the extras, have been in previous productions. Mr. Merchant and Mr. Ivory inspire the kind of loyalty that allows them to make cheap but expensive-looking films without the controlling purse strings of Hollywood.
Merchant Ivory bought the rights to Ms. Johnson's most popular novel after Ms. Johnson - who wrote "The Shining" with Stanley Kubrick - had written a screenplay for a now-defunct production company. Mr. Ivory and his longtime collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala decided to start from scratch, remaining faithful to most of the story but rewriting the ending; most changes were a result of the last-minute problem-solving that Mr. Merchant seems to relish. For example, after Disneyland in Paris refused to let them shoot a climactic scene there, Mr. Merchant invited the deputy mayor to lunch and persuaded him to clear out the Eiffel Tower on short notice and filmed it there.
Ms. Johnson said that Merchant Ivory had always been her first choice to adapt the novel. "It just seemed to me like a picture that would look good if they did it," she said over vanilla tea and ginger snaps in her grand apartment on the toney Rue Bonaparte, where she spends half the year and was at work on her 12th novel.
Her suspicion had been confirmed on a visit to the set the day before. She was impressed, she said, that they had added bookshelves filled with titles Olivia would actually read; when Ms. Johnson admired a coffee table designed for Olivia's living room, Mr. Merchant offered it to her. "I think it will look great in here if it ever arrives," she said. (It did.)
The filmmakers also invited Ms. Johnson to watch some early rushes. "I was apprehensive," she said. "You know, Will I think that it's a distortion of my work? But not at all!" She said her only real objection had been the casting of the popular middle-aged French actor Thierry Lhermite as Isabel's lover Edgar, who in the novel is a much older ladies' man who introduces the young American to haute cuisine and French lingerie. "James Ivory told me, `Well, you'll just have to get used to it, Diane,' " she recounted with a chuckle.
Mr. Ivory said that he hadn't been able to find an older French actor suitable for the role. But he did end up with two of his first choices - Ms. Close, with whom he'd been trying to work for 20 years, and Ms. Hudson. "She's such a California girl," Mr. Ivory said of Ms. Hudson during a lunch break at C„tØ Seine, a restaurant that had been transformed into the production's canteen. "She's guileless, and there's very much an innocent-abroad air she has."
The hardest part to cast was Roxy, the housewife poet. "We'd asked lots of people to play Roxy but nobody wanted to," Mr. Ivory said. "I thought it was because they had to go around playing pregnant for two-thirds of the movie, crying and slashing their wrists and things."
But the British-born Ms. Watts, who emigrated to Australia at 14 and who now lives in Los Angeles, said she identified with the role. "I've always felt like an outsider," she said after lunch, stroking her prosthetic stomach with two hands. "I grew up in a family where we moved around a lot. I feel like I can fit in to almost any culture, but I don't feel that I've ever belonged anywhere."
The on-set accent coach Tanya Blumstein - a French-American who has lived in both countries - helped Ms. Watts create the neutral accent of an American living abroad. She taught the not-quite-fluent French actor Romain Duris, who plays Isabel's half-American younger lover, to speak convincingly in "American." She encouraged the actors playing Roxy's in-laws to adopt the British-inflected English of Leslie Caron, who plays her mother-in-law.
BUT she didn't touch Ms. Hudson's Southern California twang. Wrapped in a between-takes shawl, the actress said that living temporarily in the 16th Arrondissement with her husband, Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes, had given her a sense of what it felt like being a fish on the other side of the pond.
"When I first went to the cheese man in our neighborhood, he wanted nothing to do with me," Ms. Hudson said. "Then, after about three weeks, we'd been in there, like, maybe, four times and we brought our dogs, and now he's, like, our best friend."
She continued: "When you start getting involved in the way of living, you actually start to realize that they do things pretty good here - they know how to have a good dinner."
The French crews also know how to have lunch, complete with a good bottle of red. But when work resumed on the party scene, which had moved indoors, it was fake Champagne all around. A well-heeled French-American crowd was making faux conversation when Ms. Close, outfitted in Olivia's long, gray-streaked wig, called for attention.
"You all seem to be having a good time," she tossed off in a worldly voice, "but that's not what you're here for. This is a fund-raiser! I hope you've brought your checkbooks - and if not, empty your pockets of all your cash. You can always go home on the MØtro!" The extras gave the line a suitably big imagine-that laugh.
Between scenes, Ms. Close had taken up Olivia's habit of speaking Franglais. "We always had French around the house," she said. Ms. Close's grandfather ran the American Hospital in Paris, her father worked as a doctor in French-speaking Africa, she went to a French-Swiss school for two years, and she has an aunt who has lived in France since the age of 18. "I'm playing like a young version of my aunt," she said, "who has a great understanding of French culture but remains - I don't want to say deeply American - but..."
Mr. Ivory also remains, if not deeply American, at least a foreigner in France. Even after all these years, he speaks English to the waiter, and he still seems to gaze upon Paris with honeymoon eyes. "I was on the Pont des Arts and three policemen came across on Rollerblades," he said. "It was one of the most enchanting things I saw ever!"
He admitted that he was somewhat baffled by what young women were wearing in Paris these days. But he said he hoped to capture the nuances of "the French attitude about sex and life and food and the American attitude about the same things," which lie at the heart of the story - a view of life in Paris, not just a backdrop.
"Few American directors ever have commented on France," he said. "There's virtually no one who ever took the French seriously."
But Mr. Ivory acknowledged that the natives are not always pleased when he turns his outsider's eyes on them. "The criticism in France of 'Jefferson in Paris' was that the picture I drew of the French was entirely unsympathetic," he said. "I never could get that. I wouldn't be making a film in France if I didn't like France. If I wasn't crazy about French people, why would I be here?"