The Merchant-Ivory team focuses on Americans abroad again, but this time around they’ve a abandoned the period trappings of Henry James’s “The Golden Bowl” (2001) in favor of the contemporary Paris of Diane Johnson’s popular novel. Unfortunately, in their hands–along with those of co-scripter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala–the tale of an upper middle-class US family’s encounter with aristocratic French mores is somewhat like a soap opera from which the usual extravagant emotions have been drained and replaced with nothing but pallid ambiguity. “Le Divorce” has nice locations, a handsome production design and generally flattering cinematography, but as a result of storytelling stumbles it ends up a stilted, arch affair from which you may feel the need of a quick separation.

The figures around whom everything revolves are two sisters, Isabelle (Kate Hudson) and Roxeanne (Naomi Watts). As the story begins, the former is arriving in Paris for a visit with the latter, a poetess pregnant by her French husband, an artist named Charles-Henri (Melvil Poupaud). But just as she shows up at the couple’s flat, hubby’s callously abandoning his wife to take up residence with a Russian named Magda (Rona Hartner). The split devastates Roxeanne, who adamantly rejects suggestions of divorce and periodically threatens suicide. Nonetheless Charles-Henri’s family, headed by imperious matriarch Suzanne (Leslie Caron), tries to keep up appearances, and Isabelle is invited to their weekend brunches, leading almost at once to her becoming the mistress of Suzanne’s brother Edgar (Thierry Lhermitte), a married man but a prodigious philanderer (as well as a right-wing politician). The marital difficulties of Roxeanne and Charles-Henri take a legal turn over the ownership of a painting brought by her from America, which just might be extremely valuable. The squabble concerning it eventually brings the girls’ parents (Sam Waterston and Stockard Channing) and up-tight brother (Thomas Lennon) to Paris, as well as art experts from the U.S. (Bebe Neuwirth) and England (Stephen Fry), and implicates a French lawyer (Jean-Marc Barr) who’s quickly smitten with Roxeanne. A more troublesome interloper is Magda’s distraught husband (Matthew Modine), who stalks Roxeanne and aims to get his wife back. And gliding around the action like some all-knowing spirit is an expatriate American author (Glenn Close).

There are elements in “Le Divorce” that provide a brittle sort of amusement. The most notable is the contrast drawn between the snooty French family, with its sense of noblesse oblige, and the more rumpled, informal Americans. The comparison is best exemplified in the performances of Caron and Lhermitte, who express hauteur as perfectly as one might wish, on the one hand, and the Channing-Waterston pair, whose air of bemused nonchalance has a low-key charm, on the other. But even these characters are shallow and one-dimensional, and little else about the picture satisfies. Isabelle and Roxeanne are both, in their own way, opaque figures As played by the always-attractive Hudson, Isabelle seems initially like a reasonably bright girl, but she quickly morphs into a self-centered twit. Meanwhile Roxeanne, played rather impassively by Watts, flails about emotionally without much explanation; the character’s motivations are never made credible, or even clear. (Neither are those of Charles-Henri, portrayed sleepily by Poupaud.) Close is highly affected as the ultra-sophisticated writer-observer of events. But it’s Modine, overacting frightfully, who most thoroughly upsets the mood of gentility and suppressed undercurrents that Ivory is aiming for. Unfortunately, as the film goes on he becomes increasingly prominent, playing a major part in a finale which goes completely off track.

It’s possible that “Le Divorce” might have scored if the material had been treated more deftly. But Ivory’s touch, so effortlessly right in a picture like “The Remains of the Day,” seems persistently off here. The mixture of light drawing-room comedy and heavy marital drama has become, in his hands, rather a mess–shambling, artificial, and curiously dull.