Avenue Montaigne

May, 2007, Romantic Comedy

Directed by:Danièle Thompson

Starring:Cécile de France, Valérie Lemercier, Albert Dupontel, Laura Morante

Unless you’re seeing only documentaries, going to the movies requires what the experts describe as “the willing suspension of disbelief”. That maximum is as true of comedy as thrillers, romance as tragedy. But an audience’s willingness to be lead into a fictional world doesn’t mean a film can’t deal in truth; art has often been a far more powerful conveyor of reality than un-interpreted reality itself. Yet how do you determine whether the deliberate fabrication up there on the screen contains sufficient veracity about the human condition to make it worth seeing?

Enter what I call “the fidget factor”. It’s that uneasy sensation which arises when you experience being conned; by the dialogue, the motivations presented for the characters in the story line or a bogus performance. Whatever the source (or sources) something just doesn’t feel right and the symptoms of the fidget factor set in; the mind wanders, then the eyes glance away from the screen and finally the body squirms. In severe cases, this pernicious condition can make two hours in the dark seem half as long as eternity.

Daniele Thompson is an accomplished French writer/director skilled in the creation of light romantic comedies. Here she works from her own script, presenting vignettes from the lives of a cross-section of affluent Parisians (a concert pianist, an aging art collector, a history professor, an actress, a film director) whose lives intersect thanks to Jessica, (Cecile De France) a breezily charming young woman from the provinces who comes to the big city and talks her way into a job as a waitress at a brasserie on Avenue Montaigne patronized by this ensemble cast. Thus equipped with enough characters to sustain a dozen storylines, Ms. Thompson spins her cinematic web…

The pianist wants out of a successful career whose demands constrain his spontaneity but whose earnings satisfy his manager/wife. The art collector, a widower, amuses himself with a young and highly calculating mistress to the disgust of his professorial offspring, who previously bedded the young lady himself. The astonishingly self-absorbed actress succeeds at light comedy and reality television but longs to portray Simone de Beauvoir in a film to be directed by a Hollywood mogul of dubious aesthetic sensibilities, (fetchingly played by Sidney Pollack). Each falls under the enchanted spell cast by the aforementioned Jessica, whose gamine charm, toothy grin and grubby-chic wardrobe provide a much-needed antidote to the pervasive Gallic gloom in which her well-heeled customers find themselves. After two hours of sex, champagne and introspection, the pianist and his spouse reach an accommodation, the art collector keeps his mistress but retrieves his Brancusi from auction in order to present it to his alienated son and the actress gets the part. And Jessica? She may just find love and happiness as the next wife of that disgruntled history professor…

Ennui seems to run through the French like a genetic predisposition; from philosophers, (Sarte) to chanteuses (Piaf) to novelists (Sagan) the melancholic looms large, even among the most gifted. But so does real respect for accomplishment; is there a country anywhere in the world which pays more respect to mankind’s artistic and intellectual achievements, especially when accompanied by a weary acceptance of the world as it is rather than as it should be? When that national trait has been effectively combined in recent French films, (Look At Me, Man on the Train) magic results; but in Montaigne, Ms. Thompson shoots for brittle, urban sophistication, but winds up only providing a glossy impression of it. It’s not for lack of acting ability or clever dialogue; what’s missing here isn’t affection for her characters either…it’s just that the script offers no insights that might make the time invested in watching this handsome production worth the trouble.

The verdict? Two hours of froth, pretty to look at, easy to digest, but lacking nourishment. Note to Ms. Thompson: if you want to churn out romantic comedies, try not to be quite so pretentious as you go about it.      

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