City Paper is not for tourists
All you need for a film is a girl and a street. That’s how Danièle Thompson recasts Jean-Luc Godard’s famous “girl and a gun” formula in Avenue Montaigne, a romantic comedy whose true love is Paris. Thompson is a veteran screenwriter who has recently become a director of what used to be called “women’s films,” so you’d hardly expect her to be packing heat. Instead, she and her heroine, a short-haired blond gamin from out of town, stake out a few blocks of upscale Paris. Home to theaters, cafes, and galleries, their avenue is just around the corner from the Champs-Élysées, where Jean Seberg hawked the New York Herald Tribune in Godard’s Breathless.
This year’s model is Jessica, played by a buoyant Cécile de France, who also portrayed the lesbian pal of the womanizing protagonist in L’Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls. Although she has a bigger role this time, Avenue Montaigne is no less an ensemble piece than those films. Jessica eventually finds romance with a man played by the director’s son and co-writer, Christopher Thompson, but she principally serves as a witness and catalyst. Becoming part of the jaded lives of a few Parisians who don’t appreciate how fortunate they are, she helps them resurrect their enchantment with the city. In the process, the film becomes one of the rare recent cinematic confections that doesn’t leave an artificial aftertaste.
Jessica arrives in Paris inspired by her grandmother, who once tasted the city’s luxuries—as a chambermaid at the Ritz. Jessica starts in an equally humble position, taking a job as a cafe waitress, but she’s immediately marked as special—she’s the first woman ever hired by the Bar des Theatres, where the conversation includes such lines as “any word from Alain Resnais?” The woman who’s wondering is self-confessed “bipolar” actress Catherine (Valérie Lemercier), a TV star who’s rehearsing a Feydeau farce while worrying she won’t get a breakthrough film part. An American director (played by American director Sydney Pollack) is in town, casting what sounds like a terrible movie about Jean-Paul Sartre, and Catherine is certain that she must play Simone de Beauvoir.
Carrying a takeout order to a nearby concert hall, Jessica meets Jean-François (Albert Dupontel), a gifted pianist who loves music but can no longer tolerate the stuffiness of classical concerts. This presents a crisis for both his career and his marriage: His wife, Valentine (Laura Morante), is his manager, and she takes his desire to escape the symphony-hall grind as a personal rejection.
Another family crisis is brewing down the block, where crusty plutocrat Jacques (Claude Brasseur) is planning to auction off his impressive art collection. Now a widower, he wants to divest himself of the trappings of his former life and begin anew with a young mistress. But his son Frédéric (Christopher Thompson) doesn’t want to let the art go—he’s particularly attached to Brancusi’s The Kiss—and he’s a little peeved that dad’s new lover used to be his. That Frédéric gets Jessica as the consolation prize is perhaps necessary to the film’s structure, but that plot turn is hardly the film’s big emotional payoff.
Danièle Thompson’s previous film, 2003’s Jet Lag, was hyped as her international breakthrough, perhaps because it starred Juliette Binoche and seemed simple enough for American audiences. It flopped, and deservedly so. In Avenue Montaigne she returns to the narrative intricacy of her directorial debut, 1999’s La Bûche, a Christmas tale about three grown sisters, their father, and the brother they didn’t know they had. Large casts suit the Thompsons’ skills as writers: Their characters (and their problems) aren’t profound, but they’re engaging and witty, and they know when to exit. Jet Lag overexposed its two-person cast, but Avenue Montaigne dances from one player to another without lingering too long on any one of them.
Because she works in film, Thompson can move from place to place and moment to moment with a technical ease that’s unavailable to playwrights. Yet her work is clearly in the tradition of the French boulevard comedy; indeed, the movie’s French title translates as “Orchestra Seats.” There never is any word from Alain Resnais, but this is a kind of theater-derived movie that he, once a rigorous modernist, has been making in recent years. That sort of inspiration might seem unduly retro, but nostalgia is one of the bittersweet emotions Avenue Montaigne celebrates. While Jessica is the agent of change, she’s only in Paris because of the stories her grandmother told her, and grandmama, fittingly, gets both the first and the last word.
One of the film’s motifs is Jessica’s inability to find a room she can afford to rent, or even a glass of grapefruit juice that won’t break her budget. She could, of course, hop on the Metro and be in a cheaper neighborhood in about 15 minutes, but that would break the film’s geographic scope. Rather than emulate the street-level naturalism of Godard and his fellow ’60s new wave directors, Thompson claims one small street as her set. Avenue Montaigne doesn’t argue that all the world’s a stage, just that a few blocks of Paris can be a setting that fully contains one charmed little world.