erik lundegaard

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Avenue Montaigne (2006)

AVENUE MONTAIGNE did pretty well in American theaters last year ó a little over $2 million ó which doesnít surprise since it feels a little like an American film.

A smalltown girl, Jessica (Cecilie De France), gets a job as a waitress at Bar des Theatres in Paris, which caters to the rich and theatrical crowd along Avenue Montaigne, and she gets involved, rather quickly, in several of their storylines: a soap actress, Catherine Verson (Valerie Lemercie), who hopes to get into movies, specifically a new (Hollywood?) biopic of Simone de Beauvior directed by Brian Sobinski (Sydney Pollack); a concert pianist, Jean-Francois Lefort (Albert Dupontel), who is tired of playing concerts; and an art collector, Jacques Grumberg (Claude Brasseur), who is selling his art collection. An early encounter between Grumberg and Lefourt is indicative of what makes the film worthwhile.

Lefort has stepped outside for air ó heís suffocating in the concert world, at one point even telling a visiting Japanese journalist, ďI believe in God but I think religion keeps us from God, just as classical concerts keep us from musicĒ ó and, on the street, heís recognized by Grumberg, who is supervising the unloading of his artwork. Lefort looks slightly panicked at the recognition but Grumberg is at ease as his approaches and shakes Lefortís hand:

G: You donít know recognize me?
L: I do.
G: No, you donít.
L (laughs, sheepish): No.

Turns out Lefort dined at Grumbergís apartment after a concert. A beat later, Lefort remembers: ďThe fabulous blue Braque!Ē Turns out Grumberg is selling it, along with everything else in his collection. Lefort is now curious, and, seemingly, envious. Why sell everything? Grumberg says, ďA collection is like life. When its heart stops beating, itís over.Ē He looks around. ďI began as a cabbie. I donít want to end as a museum guard.Ē

Itís a great line that bears repeating, but when Grumberg does, to his son, the son completes it because heís heard it too many times. These two are estranged, and, in French fashion, sharing the same mistress. Or, rather, the sonís mistress is the fatherís girlfriend.

The son starts out as unlikeable, gets less so. But, oddly, the least likeable character in the film is Jessica, who is supposedly wide-eyed and talkative and honest in a world in which many artists and art collectors are suffering crises of mid- or old-life. It should be them, with their complaints amid comfort, who annoy. Instead itís her. Iím not sure why, or if I should blame the character or the director or the actress (I didnít like De France in AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, either), but Jessica, just arrived in Paris and working all day without a place to stay, exudes a sense of privilege at odds with the precariousness of her situation. She doesnít seem serious enough about her job, which she was lucky enough to get, but loiters, lingers, and tells these artists her not-brilliant thoughts. Maybe itís because she presumes too much. Maybe itís because she acts like the center-of-attention when the world shouldnít care who she is. The movie, you can tell, loves her for it, which makes her all the more annoying. Me, I dug her boss, whoís seen as a bit of martinet, because he takes his work, such as it is, seriously. I like people who take their work, such as it is, seriously. Itís easy for artists to take their work seriously; but people in service occupations? Who have to be nice? To people? All the time? Now thatís admirable. Letís face it: In a world of Jessicas, the Bar des Theatres disappears.

I also loved Verson, and the messiness of her eating and talking and living (she presumes nothing), but mostly I loved Grumberg and his old-age wisdom and shrug. Heís who I want to become ó young mistress aside. OK, with the mistress.

The main conflicts in the film ó will Grumberg sell, will Lefort quit, will Verson get the role? ó resolve themselves as you think they will. And cleanly. Itís a very clean film that feels like itís pushing (one might even say pimping) Paris on us. Romance everywhere, etc. In the end the two least likeable characters get together for a smooch over a small cafe table. I donít know if thatís romance or its opposite but it still feels like too much of a Hollywood ending for such a French film.

—April 26, 2008

© 2008 Erik Lundegaard