"You get what you want and then you don't want it anymore." That's how French writer-director Danièle Thompson has summed up the theme of her bouncy boulevard comedy, Avenue Montaigne. The boulevard in question, une petite rue near the Champs-Elysées, is, according to Thompson, one of the few places left in Paris where actors, artists and musicians might rub shoulders with waiters, doormen and cab drivers. And whether that's true or not, it makes for a sweetly sad look at la vie Parisienne, a cinematic valentine to the romance of liberté, égalité and fraternité. As the film's major characters - a soap-opera star (Valérie Lemercier), a virtuoso pianist (Albert Dupontel) and an art collector (Claude Brasseur) - try to imagine second acts for themselves, we want to shake them by the shoulders and say, "Hey, at least you had a first act."
It makes no difference. The heart wants what the heart wants, as Woody Allen once put it. And these people want more - or, in the art collector's case, less. Widowed and getting on in years, he's ready to sell off his Braques and Brancusis, a decision that perturbs his son (played by Thompson's own son, Christopher, who wrote the script with her), a serious-intellectual type who thinks his father has forgotten his mother too quickly. Meanwhile, the virtuoso pianist has grown tired of the travel, the formal attire and the stifling atmosphere of the concert hall. And the soap-opera star has grown tired of being a soap-opera star. (Lemercier totally nails her comic frustration.) Though currently playing the lead in a Feydeau farce, she wants to land the role of Simone de Beauvoir in a biopic directed by a big-time American director played by big-time American director Sydney Pollack. Imagine Susan Lucci as Susan Sontag.
Thompson keeps these boulevardiers bumping into each other, and the moment of impact, as often as not, occurs inside a Right Bank bistro that actually exists, says Thompson. What the movie's added is Jessica, a gamine's gamine in the Holly Golightly mode, albeit without the need to sell her wares on or off the street. As played by Cécile de France, Jessica is one of those holy innocents who say yes to life because it would never occur to them to say no. And de France, with her Sandy Duncan hair and Sandy Duncan everything else, will either charm your pants off or send you running from the theater. But she's quite in keeping with the rest of the film, which often feels like an Ernst Lubitsch movie (Ninotchka?) without the celebrated Lubitsch touch. There are so many shots of the Eiffel Tower you may start to feel like you're trapped in a postcard.
And maybe you are.