2006Director: Danièle Thompson
Cast: Claude Brasseur, Cécile De France, Albert Dupontel
he theatrical-release title is designed to give you the wrong idea. Better is Fauteuils d'orchestre, the French title, which was translated as Orchestra Seats for festival screenings. This isn't a movie about fashionable people; it's a movie about artsy people, of whom even the poorest happen to be exceptionally fashionable. The film assumes high-cultural literacy, not stopping to explain who Braque and Brancusi are. The one moment of astonishment that I, who couldn't tell a Brancusi from a Bernini, got from this movie was during its consideration of The Kiss, the Romanian sculptor's tribute to romantic love. Our heroine, Jessica (Cécile De France), a young provincial, who, unlike the Parisian characters, knows little of theater or classical music or art, is immediately taken by the sculpture and is invited to touch it. Throughout the movie, this block of stone—worth zillions as we are often reminded—is handled and fondled like a favorite pet. I've no idea whether this was a real version of The Kiss, but not even Jules and Jim made sculpture so moving.
The pleasures of the rest of the movie, though not so enduring, are also simple. It's fun to watch talented, largely likeable people enjoying each other’s company, while wittily inferring character from the way people answer their cell-phones, or postulating that "Sartre was a lousy lay." Each major character faces a crisis—the old art collector Jacques (Claude Brasseur) must make peace with his son; the concert pianist Jean-François (Albert Dupontel) feels suffocated by his profession; the TV star Catherine (Valérie Lemercier) longs for a more substantial role. Connecting all of them in wildly coincidental ways is waitress Jessica, broke and technically homeless.
I didn't much care about the particularities of their problems, not because the fears of good-looking, well-heeled white folks are beyond our concern (as some reviews have inevitably suggested), but because I knew they'd be OK. You know how these stories go: everyone gets their Moment of Truth, and, if things don't go entirely as planned, they still turn out pretty well. The audience is aware of this structure from the beginning, so resentment is only justified if the director starts hitting you over the head with bourgeoisie suffering.
Danièle Thompson would find such crassness as distasteful as the color scheme she imposes on Catherine's hit serial, Her Honor the Mayor. Still, Thompson prefers the appearance of restraint to restraint itself. When Jessica finds herself locked out just after dawn, we see a few drops of rain start to fall, and then a montage begins, cutting across Paris from character to character. I was genuinely worried Thompson would decline to show the clichéd image of a pretty young woman sitting in the rain. Thankfully we did get to see it, right before the Eiffel Tower shot.
I don't know if De France is a truly gifted actress, but here she's sharper than most ingenues. When her grandma, who used to work at the Ritz, asks if she's heard the story of how she got that job, De France has a wonderful reaction, her eyes conveying she's heard the story many times, and her smile showing she wants to hear it again to please the old lady.
All the supporting performances are excellent, but the picture belongs to Lemercier, who for this role picked up her second César (at a ceremony she also hosted). Art film fans might know her from her sly turn in Claire Denis' Friday Night, but in France she's known as a comic. In her early scenes here, she wastes no time establishing her divadom by overplaying like only the wiliest veterans can. Catherine is self-regarding because she knows she has skills: listen to the way she pronounces "Bellucci," a rival for the de Beauvoir role she covets. She's a multidimensional character, but Lemercier picks moments to switch off subtlety. Catherine's Moment of Truth is a tour de force performance in a Feydeau play, all energy and volume. Sydney Pollack shows up to give thanks for the freedom from psychology Feydeau offers. Though he couldn't say this about Avenue Montaigne, the movie makes the most of what freedom it has.
Avenue Montaigne is currently in limited release.
By: Brad Luen
Published on: 2007-04-18
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