Avenue Montaigne (2006): Daniele Thompson French Nominee for Best Foreign Language Oscar

The film’s French title is “Fauteuils d’orchestra,” which translates into “Orchestra Seats.”

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

A devotion to art, whether as an aficionado or as a practitioner, can give life richness and meaning, but the demands of that devotion can also be trying. Underneath the lustrous images of Parisian society, that message shines through in director and co-writer Daniele Thompson’s Avenue Montaigne, France’s 2006 official entry for Best Foreign Language Film, which explores the issue in an ensemble piece that emphasizes soft radiance over deep analysis.

Recently relocated to Paris to escape her provincial life and the boyfriend who dumped her, Jessica (Cecile de France) finds a job as a waitress at a bistro on Avenue Montaigne, a meeting place for artists of all stripes: musicians, actors, and filmmakers, as well as the hopeful multitudes trying to get a foot in the door.

Because of her unassuming manner, Jessica quickly becomes entangled in the lives of several people who are all preparing for major art events, including a classical pianist (Albert Dupontel), an old collector (Claude Brasseur) getting his works ready for auction, and a TV actress (Valrie Lemercier). All these events will be held on the same evening, and each of these individuals is facing a personal crisis involving his or her art. The pianist feels stifled by the stuffy concerts hes booked to perform through 2012, the collector wants to sell his work but feels some trepidation about walking away from its memories, and the actress has made a successful living in a lowbrow soap opera but yearns to be taken seriously.

And Jessica well, in the French tradition of Amelie, she wants happiness too, but she seems to be more of a conduit for others happiness, content to see those around her find their contentment.

Early on, Nicola Piovanis pleasant score and Jean-Marc Fabres tourism-postcard cinematography alert us to the fact that Avenue Montaigne will be an agreeable souffl of a film–no matter the romantic tumult and creative uncertainty at play, Thompson will steer all concerned parties to their predestined happy ending. But while Thompson has a sure sense in conducting this parade of myriad characters–she reveals traces of the Robert Altman skill with overlapping story lines–the pervasive breeziness can feel like cutesy overkill, resulting in a movie that’s high in surface delights but lacking much substance below.

In films that have several interconnected threads, its almost inevitable that some characters will work more forcefully than others. With Avenue Montaigne, Dupontels pianist quickly becomes the movies emotional center, speaking most profoundly about artists conflicted impulses. Jean-Franois Lefort is a soft-spoken, kind man working in an elitist field; he is renowned for his talent, but he seems to be slowly falling apart, forced to play for the privileged that have no appreciation for the music he treasures. His wife, played by Laura Morante, adores his talent and has devoted her life to the furthering of his career–shes even his manager. He wants to quit to walk away from a life that drains his enthusiasm for his passion but can he without betraying her sacrifice Is their marriage simply a series of concert tours and press appearances Or do they still love one another

Its in these gnawing questions, that weigh on Lefort, where Thompson best balances Pariss urban sophistication with her characters secret fears, juxtaposing the citys romantic spirit with its individuals messy, unfinished lives. Leforts journey may reach a predictable conclusion, but Dupontel and Morantes performances are filled with quiet, graceful moments that bespeak a partnership forged by both creative aspirations and simple tenderness. Its a joy to watch them fall back in love with one another.

Their story line is so affecting, that one cant help but be disappointed that the other characters arcs play out so familiarly. The collectors auction puts him in conflict with his estranged son (Christopher Thompson, the filmmakers son and co-writer), who sees the artwork as another battlefield in their family conflict. And the TV actress has to wow a famous American director (played by Sydney Pollack with his usual bottomless supply of charm and comic timing) to land her big break. But these narratives present trite lessons and mediocre resolutions that offer little satisfaction, because the stakes are so minimal and so calculatedly effervescent.

That said, the actors bring enough conviction to their roles for us to care about their predicaments. Unfortunately, the same cant be said for de France, who flutters through the film as our everywoman surrogate, leaning on cutie-pie facial tics that are meant to suggest the adorable optimism of youth. Her doe-eyed sweetness may transfix the artists of Avenue Montaigne, but not many critics. She finds a small slice of happiness at the films end, but her story line is a mere truffle compared to the thoroughly satisfying main course Thompson cooks up between her beleaguered pianist and his manager wife.


Running time: 106 minutes
Production companies: Thelma Films, Studio Canal
Producer: Christine Gozlan
Screenplay: Danile Thompson, Christopher Thompson
Cinematography: Jean-Marc Fabre
Editor: Sylvie Landra
Production design: Michle Abb-Vannier
Music: Nicola Piovani


Jessica (Ccile de France)
Catherine (Valrie Lemercier)
Jean-Franois Lefort (Albert Dupontel)
Valentine (Laura Morante)
Jacques Grumberg (Claude Brasseur)
Frdric (Christopher Thompson)
Claudie (Dani)
Brian (Sydney Pollack)
Valrie (Annelise Hesme)