Neutrally retitled from the more pertinent Orchestra Seats, Avenue Montaigne is a French soufflé of the old school, a romantic comedy set in Paris's arty district, where neurotic writers and actors wring their manicured hands and—at least in flirty little numbers like this one—rub shoulders with the hoi polloi. 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 Danièle Thompson, whose warmly irreverent fluff (La Bûche, Jet Lag) comes 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 people 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 movies lack for romance. She shoots Paris like Woody Allen shoots New York—ritzy, golden, and packed with chance meetings between high-strung arty types. By night, when the Avenue wakes up, the Eiffel tower glimmers while chic little brasseries fill up with a joyfully unwieldy ensemble of les types interessants, most of them moping about careers most people would kill for. A television soap actress, played in a key of unremitting hysteria by the wonderfully funny Valérie Lemercier, neglects her enormous fan base to obsess about landing the role of Simone de Beauvoir in a movie yet to be made by an American director (a bemused Sydney Pollack). A concert pianist (Albert Dupontel), exhausted by the punishing tour schedule his loyal wife (Laura Morante) keeps pushing on him, slips away to play to children with cancer. He bumps into an old acquaintance, a cabbie turned art collector (Claude Brasseur) who's putting his multimillion dollar collection up for auction, thus further estranging his gloomy son (played by Thompson's son Christopher, who also co-wrote the lively screenplay with his mother).
The Thompsons clearly know and love this neurotic milieu, but their 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, who's played by Cécile de France, has had a harder life than most, but she's a natural observer with a gift for finding life's orchestra seats, "neither too close nor too far." Raised on joie de vivre by a benign grandmother, Jessica is well equipped to take life as it comes, and she flits from one sad sack to the next, giving and taking nectar. You can find gamines like de France under every French rock, but this crop-haired Belgian-born actress, with her radiant ingénue's smile, prominent gums, and bags a-borning under her sparkling eyes, beguiles the heart long after more perfect-looking specimens fade from memory. Like her friend the concierge (the veteran actress Dani), who dwells in a world dripping with nostalgia for mid-20th-century crooners like Sacha Distel and Charles Aznavour and faces retirement with the equanimity of one who's gotten what she wanted out of life, Jessica 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 and observant about the way people of privilege persist in defining themselves by what they lack or long for more than what they have, or have done. And its climax—a clutch of performance pieces as uproariously zany as they are moving—is shot through with a generously conciliatory spirit. High-minded French cinephiles who grouse about the displacement of homegrown 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.