The lesser entries for the Academy Awards’ Foreign Language category tend to mirror their American counterparts: technically assured predictable melodramas that trade off national clichés and fetishes. France’s recent entries — Amélie, A Very Long Engagement, and Les Choristes — are postcards for a place as cute and safe as a Borders coffee shop, equally appealing at home and abroad. France’s failed bid for the 2006 Oscars, Danièle Thompson’s Avenue Montaigne (Fauteuils d’orchestre) — a paean to Paris, love, and the invigorating power of art — nestles nicely into this smidgen-above-mediocre realm.
It follows the wanderings of Jessica (Cécile De France), a winsome waif whose move to Paris is inspired by the romantic ramblings of her grandmother. She gets a job as a waitress at the Bar des Theatres, a café on ritzy Avenue Montaigne where a concert hall, theater, and art auction house are clustered. Delivering special orders to floundering star pianist Jean-François (Albert Dupontel), frustrated bipolar actress Catherine (Valérie Lemercier), and aging art collector Jacques (Claude Brasseur) and his son Frédéric (Christopher Thompson), she ingratiates herself into their lives and troubles.
With her wide, taking-in-the-beauty-of-life eyes and childish fashion sense, Jessica is strongly reminiscent of Amélie, that pixie who by her very existence makes flowers bloom and calliopes sing. Homeless, Jessica finds shelter by curling up like a kitten in front of fountains or sneaking into the concert hall at night. It’s not clear what she wants from life except to be cuddled. The film’s premise is similarly adorable: life’s darker problems are best handled by ignoring them and focusing on pretty surfaces. “I loved jewelry, I loved luxury,” the grandma’s voiceover repeatedly asserts. Et voilà!
In the movie’s more satisfactory first half, Catherine, Jean-François, and Jacques are all dealing with mid- to late life crises. Jacques’ art collection reminds him of his deceased wife and the many years it took to build his fortune. He sells it (to relieve his burden) and takes a younger girlfriend, Valérie (Annelise Hesme), a blatant gold digger. Frédéric dislikes her (he had an affair with her once too), but is soon distracted by Jessica. His confrontation with Valérie for using her father appears vaguely “heroic,” as she later acknowledges “using” Jacques, and by film’s end, she has faded into the background as acceptable arm candy.
Jean-François’ wife Valentine (Laura Morante) looks and acts very much like Valérie. Tormented by the stifling atmosphere of the concert hall, Jean-François would rather play music in a forest or a pediatric ward, where — apparently — classical music can be more honestly “appreciated.” (Dupontel’s humorous and compassionate performance makes Jean-François occasionally sympathetic.) He’s afraid Valentine doesn’t love him or he doesn’t love her, as she doesn’t want to move to a quiet house in the country (unfortunately, we never hear her view of the conflict).
Catherine’s crisis is manifested professionally. She hates the soap opera, Her Honor, The Mayor, that made her popular (“People love me! So what?” she cries), and is currently appearing in a Georges Feydau play in hopes of getting the critical attention and film roles she desires. (An amusing recurring joke has her complaining about the Juliette Binoche types who are predictably considered for every French part.) At the Bar des Theatres, she courts American director Brian Sobinski (Sydney Pollack), hoping to be cast in his biopic about Jean-Paul Sartre and Simon de Beauvoir.
Impressing Sobinski with her enthusiasm and knowledge of de Beauvoir, Catherine not only gets the part but inspires him to rewrite the film from de Beauvoir’s perspective. Lemercier similarly tilts the film’s focus towards an appreciation of Catherine. Unfortunately, her transformative moment is unconvincing: when she at last she embraces the straightforward ethos of the Feydau play. By the film’s loopy logic, it is only when Catherine puts aside her brainy neuroses that she lands the role of brainy neurotic de Beauvoir.
Avenue Montaigne is miles away from the Paris of Sartre and de Beauvoir. All the main characters’ problems are solved by embracing “art for art’s sake,” but we’re left with a bunch of happy people in cafés, listening to Charles Aznavour. “Love” and “art” become meaningless words in this airy film.