It’s two out of three for writer-director Daniele Thompson, who specializes in seriocomic ensemble pieces in which the characters’ stories overlap and impinge on each other. Her debut picture, “La buche,” was a nicely sweet-and-sour holiday tale, but the second “Jet Lag,” was a sophomore letdown. Happily the third, “Avenue Montaigne”—which was originally titled “Fauteuils d’Orchestre,” or “Orchestra Seats,” after a bit of dialogue we hear near the close—represents a strong return to form.
The picture melds and shuffles the stories of several people at the point of radical change in their lives. One is concert pianist Jean-Francois Lefort (Albert Dupontel), preparing for a big performance, who wants to abandon the recital grind, much to the distress of his manager-wife (Laura Morante). Another is Claudie (Dani), the long-time concierge at the concert hall, who’s about to retire. A third is actress Catherine Versen (Valerie Lemercier), the star of a popular soap, who’s preparing for the premiere of a Feydeau farce in a theatre down the across the street but is desperately trying to catch the eye of visiting filmmaker Brian Sobinski (Sydney Pollack) in the hope that he’ll cast her as Simone de Beauvoir in a picture he’s preparing on Jean-Paul Sartre. And finally there’s businessman Jacques Grumberg (Claude Brasseur), who’s arranging the sale of his large art collection at a nearby auction house in the aftermath of his wife’s death. He’s also involved with a much younger woman, Valerie (Annelise Hesme), much to the distress of his estranged son Frederic (Christopher Thompson), an academic who—unbeknownst to his father—once had a fling with her himself. And linking all the separate stories is Jessica (Cecile de France), an upbeat young arrival from the sticks who wins a job as a waitress at the neighborhood brasserie and interacts with the various characters.
One might complain about some of the twists of plot Thompson and her son and co-writer have contrived—the denouement of Lefort’s concert goes too far (as does Catherine’s final take on Feydeau), and Grumberg’s big secret is entirely too predictable. Jessica, moreover, isn’t quite as effervescent and delectable as she’s meant to be. (She’s no Amelie.) But even at its weakest, “Avenue Montaigne” hangs together nicely, a film of charm and delicacy, and some great moments balance out the weaker ones: the Catherine-Brian thread is a particular winner, with Pollack socking across his scenes. (It’s beginning to be a lot more fun watching Pollack the actor than the movies he directs.)
The rest of the cast are solid, too, with Lemercier a standout and Suzanne Flon making the most of her brief scenes as Jessica’s elderly grandmother, in whose footsteps the girl is following. And the picture looks great, with cinematography by Jean-Marc Fabre that makes fine use of the lovely Parisian settings.
The mixture of laughter and tears that Thompson serves up in “Avenue Montaigne” might not always be ideally balanced, but though the picture’s like a souffle that occasionally goes soggy, for the most part it’s a tasty treat.