Daniéle Thompson’s Avenue Montaigne is a French soufflé of the old school, a romantic comedy set in Paris’s arty district. For my money, charm comes altogether too easily to the French, and Gallic whimsy only serves to prop up infantile Anglo fantasies about the ceaseless glamour of
la vie Parisienne. Still, I make an exception for Thompson, whose warmly irreverent fluff (
La Bûche, Jet Lag) becomes enlivened by her earthy refusal to take the cult of the artist at face value, and her fetching habit of nudging to the dramatic spotlight the kinds of characters who, in movies of this kind, usually show up for five seconds to roll their eyes at bourgeois folly and exit, sweeping.
Not that Thompson’s films lack for romance. She shoots Paris like Woody Allen shoots New York—ritzy, golden, and packed with chance meetings between highly strung arty types. Here a television soap actress, played in a key of unremitting hysteria by the wonderfully funny Valérie Lemercier, obsesses about landing the role of Simone de Beauvoir in a movie. A concert pianist (Albert Dupontel), exhausted by his punishing tour schedule, slips away to play to children with cancer and bumps into an old acquaintance, a cabbie-turned-art-collector (Claude Brasseur) who’s putting his multi-million-dollar collection up for auction.
Thompson clearly knows and loves this neurotic milieu, but her sensibility is resolutely (and commercially) populist, and in short order a newly arrived country bumpkin is turned loose among these broody narcissists to act as both ministering angel and brisk reality check. Jessica (Cécile de France) is a shamelessly sentimental creation, but to live in her orbit is to be radically cheered up.
Avenue Montaigne doesn’t pretend to be deep, but it’s precise about the way people of privilege define themselves by what they lack or long for more than what they have, or have done. High-minded French cinephiles who grouse about the displacement of art films by frothy romantic comedies must have fluffed their feathers when the movie failed to make the Oscar short list for Best Foreign Film. Given the tendency of current cinema to milk our glum mood for all it’s worth— I say we could use the break.