March 14-20, 2007

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'Avenue Montaigne'

Eiffel eyeful: Cécile de France enjoys the sights of Paris in 'Avenue Montaigne.'

A Babe of Mâcon

Artists, patrons and fans meet in a Parisian traffic jam in Danièle Thompson's 'Avenue Montaigne'

By Richard von Busack

A FEW YEARS BACK, Amélie gave us the idea of a gamin rehabilitating Paris. Let me rephrase that: Amélie reinforced the idea most of us have of Paris as a celestial city pearlized with clouds, a place of permanent residence only for the very lucky and the celebrated dead.

Somehow, director Gaspar Noé's view of the city as Satan's playground eludes the mass imagination—just as Noé's backward-running Irreversible was left out of David Denby's recent New Yorker essay on out-of-sequence movies. Noé's Parisian spleen serves as a corrective to the mush that can fill American skulls when we see those broad avenues, those plane trees, those incomparably chic magazins.

Avenue Montaigne, by director Danièle Thompson (La Bûche, Jet Lag), isn't going to rouse us out of that swoon. Give it credit for an intellectual zest missing from Amélie, however, even in a similar story of a girl blessing hard-working artists and art lovers. "You're a ray of sunshine," says the grandmother of the heroine, Jessica (Cécile de France), and Thompson treats Jessica as if that's what she were, illuminating and warming the people she passes by.

Jessica, in town from her home in Mâcon, boasts a short hairdo and enough overbite to make her look like a friendly squirrel. She talks her way into a waitress job at the Bar des Théâtres on Avenue Montaigne at a nexus of two theaters and an auction hall. Barkeeper Marcel says that he will break sacred tradition that says only men shall be garçons and bring Jessica on as a temporary waitress.

He has no choice. A perfect storm of cultural events is brewing all on the same night: an art auction, a performance by the renowned pianist Jean-François Lefort (Albert Dupontel) and the opening of a revival of Feydeau's farce Mais n'te promène donc pas toute nue. (My translation is Don't Run Around Naked Like That, but anyone with better French can weigh in.) As a waitress, Jessica is privy to the problems of the three people most deeply involved in these happenings. Take the leading lady in the Feydeau, a soap-opera star named Catherine (Valérie Lemercier), who is as impossible as Barbra Streisand. She drives her director nuts trying to find the psychological realism in a play that needs to be performed like a Monty Python sketch in order to work.

Catherine's prickly temperament worsens when she learns that the American movie director Brian Sobinski (Sydney Pollack) is in town to cast the leads in a Sartre biopic. Catherine knows she's Simone de Beauvoir, damn it, and makes herself miserable trying to land the role.

On her rounds, Jessica brings mint cordials to the pianist. Jean-François is dying inside; he is overbooked and deeply sick of the pomp surrounding the world of classical music. His wife, accustomed to his nerves, can't take his outbursts seriously and refuses to listen to his complaints.

Jean-François' acquaintance Grumberg (Claude Brasseur) must be suffering something similar, since he is liquidating his collection of modern art. Grumberg is a rarity in French cinema: a self-made millionaire who doesn't have a crime in his background. Having risen up from a taxi driver to become an airline magnate, he's now getting rid of the art he and his late wife collected on a whim. Grumberg's son, Frédéric (Christopher Thompson, co-writer and son of the director), is angry enough at seeing his patrimony on the auction block, but he has another barb in him—the old man is also carrying on with a girl half his age.

Avenue Montaigne has been compared to Robert Altman's films, but Thompson's emphasis on symmetry is far different from Altman's way of throwing an onscreen party and seeing who clicks. It seems as if everyone has their double or their reverse angle. Every artist has a connoisseur, and the crises may be different, but they all match. Jessica loves all the arts with an untutored person's intuition. Her enthusiasm and common sense relieve the crazed actress, the suffocating pianist and the old tycoon who believes he must shut the door on his past life.

I suppose no one deserves the Legion of Honor for making Paris look good in a movie, but Thompson demonstrates special taste and intelligence. She never turns dippy about the realities of Paris. If the film gives us the bridges and the river light, it also gives us a rainy morning at a public hospital.

Avenue Montaigne is sweet but not candy coated. It notes the effect big money has had on Paris and how that loot has corroded our dream of a place where natural aristocrats can rise. Typical for a movie that gives us a lot of information in a few well-chosen words, Thompson notes this obscene wealth in a glance: a shop window advertises a pair of gloves selling for 550 Euros. And there are other suggestions of the reality of a city—like New Orleans or San Francisco—that sells what it used to give away. However, Avenue Montaigne assures us that some glory remains to be snatched, as when Jessica, camping illegally in a theater, takes a wrong turn and ends up on the roof. To her grateful surprise, she is exposed to a creamy dawn-lit view of the Eiffel Tower that you couldn't buy for $1,000 a night.

Movie Times Avenue Montaigne (PG-13; 100 min.), directed by Danièle Thompson, written by Danièle and Christopher Thompson, photographed by Jean-Marc Fabre and starring Cécile de France, opens March 16.

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