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Avenue Montaigne

Danièle Thompson's Avenue Montaigne (Fauteuils d'orchestre) is an easy movie for critics to dismiss. You don't have to be a Marxist to complain that it's a fairy-tale visit to the land of luxe, larded with wouldn't-it-be-nice improbabilities. Frankly, though, I think it's wonderful that someone has cooked up a children's movie for adults. There's no reason why people over forty can't, from time to time, be simply delighted by something onscreen.

The French title refers to the hot seats in a theatre. The Anglophone title, also French, refers more precisely to the Paris street in which most of the action occurs. In its two-block run from the Champs Élysées to the Seine, the Avenue Montaigne accommodates the deluxe hotel, the Plaza Athenée, the Comédie et Théatre des Champs-Élysées (adjoining theatre and concert halls), and the Hôtel Drouot, a leading auction house. I don't know if there really is a Bar des Théatres across the street, but if there is, Avenue Montaigne will have made it even more difficult to get a table there.

Three stories are tied up in a very pretty bow. First, there is Catherine Versen (Valérie Lemercier), a popular but frazzled actress who bitches about everything and wants to act in more serious stuff than her soap opera (for which she is paid €300K per episode) and the Feydeau farce in which she is about to open at the Comédie. Catherine desperate to play Simone de Beauvoir in an upcoming movie by Brian Sobinski (Sydney Pollack), and what she does to nail this gig is about the funniest thing I've ever seen on film - and it keeps getting funnier - while at the same time a profound homage to the great master of bedroom farce.

Then there is Jacques Grumberg (Claude Brasseur), a self-made millionaire - billionaire perhaps - who has decided to sell off his formidable art collection. His wife, the love of his life, has died, and he is semi-estranged from his children. We don't meet the daughter, but the son, Frédéric (Christopher Thompson), independently wealthy thanks to his father but by profession as ascetic historian of the Religious Wars, shows up to radiate existential joylessness. Father and son have something in common that papa doesn't know about - call it Feydeau leakage.

The third story concerns a concert pianist, Jean-François Lefort (Albert Dupontel), who is suffocating in his white tie. He's sick of playing to elite audiences while young people regard classical music as stuffy and difficult; he longs to play in hospitals, not at Salzburg. His wife and devoted agent, Valentine (Laura Morante), loves his playing, but she also loves the high life that it makes possible. This story builds, horrifyingly for anyone who loves music and goes to concerts as I do, to a dreadful moment, really too hideous even to be suggested. But this is the kind of movie in which damage can be undone.

These stories are linked by Jessica (Cécile de France), a gamine from Mâcon who has come to Paris to make her fortune. Ordinarily, the Bar des Théatre doesn't hire female waitpersons, but because two waiters are out sick, and on "the seventeenth" (of a cool month, I gather), the Lefort concert, the Grumberg auction, and the Versen opening are all going to take place, Jessica gets the job. This involves a lot of deliveries to the theatre and visits to the auction house. Jessica has a knack for being at the right place at the right time, but only a spoilsport would complain. Needless to say, she kisses the right toad in the end.

Also on hand and equally worthy of mention are Dani, who plays a sort of factotum at the theatre, and Anneliese Hesme as Valérie.

Every once in a while, someone makes a movie about what life is like among what a friend of mine calls "the big boys." Avenue Montaigne is not one of them, but it does have convey a useful message (visually, as well as delivering it explicitly): in life as in the theatre, you don't want to sit too close to the stage. (March 2007)

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