Love, Art and Destiny Intersect On Charming 'Avenue Montaigne'

Cécile de France and Christopher Thompson in the Parisian tale.
Cécile de France and Christopher Thompson in the Parisian tale. (Thinkfilm)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 2, 2007

"Avenue Montaigne," a delicately charming fable set in Paris, offers us the kind of experience we secretly crave when we visit any great city -- meaningful encounters with its people.

Like the best movies inextricably linked to the cities in which they are set -- Woody Allen's New York comedies, for instance, or Pedro Almodovar's Madrid-based soap operas -- "Avenue Montaigne" transforms an overwhelming metropolis into a user-friendly village with quirkily appealing characters. And as we become caught up in their personal dilemmas, Paris becomes increasingly cozy, precious and intimate.

Centermost is Jessica (an impishly radiant Cécile De France), a sweet-hearted gamine from the provinces who has just arrived in the capital. To this country girl, whose grandmother once worked as a chambermaid at the Ritz, Paris is the city of luxury, a picture-postcard world of hotels, expensive restaurants and fine living. And she wants in.

When she gets a job waiting tables on the chic Avenue Montaigne, she gets her wish, and then some. A new play, a concert and an art auction -- all set to open on the same day in that perfect corner of the city -- bring scores of artists and other interesting people to Jessica's restaurant.

Jessica's unabashed reverence for her clientele soon endears her to everyone except -- this being Paris -- the maitre d'. Among the charmed are Jean-François (Albert Dupontel), a classical pianist who sees Jessica as a member of the unsnobbish audience he wishes he could reach; and Jacques Grumberg (Claude Brasseur), an aging businessman whose dwindling resources have forced him to sell the art collection of a lifetime.

Jessica even disarms cranky old Catherine (Valérie Lemercier), a well-known TV soap actress whose diva-like disaffection for her upcoming stage role -- in a common Feydeau farce no less -- belies a tortured vulnerability. Sydney Pollack -- pretty much playing himself -- has a small role as an A-list filmmaker in town to cast for a biopic about Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. ("Did you ever work with Truffaut?" Pollack's character boorishly asks soap actress Catherine -- to which she tells him that she is far too young.)

French director and co-writer Danièle Thompson -- as she did with her 2002 airport romance, "Jet Lag" -- traces the serendipitous forces that draw people together. Watching "Avenue," we're caught up in the allure of chance meetings, fateful changes of plan and coincidence -- the same vagaries of destiny that power romances, fairy tales and, of course, a lot of European movies. (Its French title, "Fauteuils d'Orchestre," means "Orchestra Seats.") There's an implied magic, brought about by the enchanting atmosphere of Paris (the sun-splashed bridges and monuments never seemed warmer) and the effect Jessica seems to have on everybody. She's the Tinker Bell of this story. As people believe in her unvarnished purity, their lives are subtly transformed.

Fortunately, "Avenue Montaigne" is too lighthearted to descend into ponderous mysticism. And as showtime arrives for the big events -- play, concert, auction -- we have not only experienced a vicarious sojourn in Paris, we have picked up souvenirs few real trips could ever produce: a sense of the ebb and flow of Parisian living, and the way that life, love and art can flow together in one rather wonderful, collective stream.

Avenue Montaigne (100 minutes, in French and English with subtitles, at the Avalon, Cinema Arts Theatre and Landmark's E Street) is rated R for profanity and sexual situations.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company