A high-strung, bipolar actress, rehearsing a play and rewriting Feydeau as she goes along. A hunky, middle-aged concert pianist, wearying of this "snooty" world of classical music. An aging art collector, selling his treasures because his passion for it all has faded along with his years.
This is the world of Avenue Montaigne, and into it walks sweet young Jessica (Cécile de France), who might be Holly Golightly's blonde French cousine. Raised by her grandmother in the country, she leaves home to see the big wide world, just as her grandma did a half-century ago. She gets a job in a café, and by delivering small trays of food to the neighborhood's cultural elite -- the actress, the pianist, the collector -- she gets drawn into the whirlwind of their transitional lives.
"You have to take risks," Jessica's grandma tells her. "I pushed my way in and had a wonderful life." This could well describe Danièle Thompson, one of France's sturdiest commercial screenwriters (Queen Margot, The Mad Adventures of 'Rabbi' Jacob). Now a woman of 63, she's directing her third film, which makes her something of a contemporary pioneer (if not quite a legend) behind the camera.
Avenue Montaigne -- co-written with her son, Christopher Thompson -- is a gentle, well-dressed, soap-operatic roundelay of interlocking tales, with Jessica moving in and out of the lives she'd like to live (and that she manages to change, and vice versa). The pace is brisk with words but leisurely with happenings, and there's plenty of bright sunshiny Paris to see, a fair bit of name-dropping, and a spot of culture in every scene.
Thompson makes sure to punctuate her film's everyday dialogue with pith. "There comes a time when time passing becomes time remaining," says the collector, who is secretly ill and slightly estranged from his son (portrayed by Christopher Thompson). The stage director insists that "nothing is psychology" in Feydeau. The actress, who's frantic to play Simone de Beauvoir in a film by an American director (Sydney Pollack), snaps back: "Nonsense. His mother was a Polish Jew!"
And most ponderous of all, the pianist tells an interviewer, "I believe in God, but religions keep us from God, just as classical concerts keep us from music." So he performs a free solo concert in a public building for anyone who cares to stop and listen. The children stand especially close to him as he plays.
What to take from Avenue Montaigne -- whose French title, Fauteuils d'orchestra, means "orchestra seats," the best in the house? That when passion fades, you might as well stop doing what you do. That art (or at least music) should be for the masses, not just for people who "understand" it. That we all want the same things from life: truth, beauty, love, kindness. These are the lessons of Jessica and of Paris, the city whose lights illuminate in myriad, if slightly sentimental, ways. In French, with subtitles.
- New-to-the-city girl: Ccile de France