If you like to think of Paris as a city full of crazy dreamers who dunk their croissants in balsamic vinegar, sit in the rain in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower and ponder the meanings of life, art and love, then you might be the target audience for Avenue Montaigne. It's the kind of movie that invites adjectives like "frothy," "sweet" and "effervescent," words that could also be used to describe a tooth-rotting soft drink. If anything, a can of Coke might be more substantial (and less time-consuming) than Danièle Thompson's labored art-world farce.
This is basically the same film they used to make in Hollywood in the 1930s: a plucky, naive backwater blonde comes to the big city in search of romance, luxury and success; her chipper bonhomie in turn transforms a group of comically callous socialites. Transplant the scenario to France, throw in a few jean jackets and some pseudo-philosophical dialogue, and you've got a would-be inheritor to the Amélie throne of Gallic cuteness.
Of course, "cute" is a four-letter word, and Avenue Montaigne overdoses on the stuff while trying to say something meaningful about the class divide and how it relates to being a tortured artiste. Using postcard-perfect images of Paris as a backdrop no dog poop here Thompson lazily follows the lives of three showbiz luminaries, all seen through the eyes of the aforementioned cute-as-a-button waitress Jessica (Cécile De France, last seen on these shores as a schizophrenic, chainsaw-wielding lesbian in the slasher flick High Tension). As we observe the serio-comic subplots of a high-strung actress (Valerie Lemercier), an aging art dealer (Claude Brasseur) and a concert pianist on the verge of a nervous breakdown (Albert Dupontel), we're invited to muse upon the growing commercialism of classical music, the perils of living your life in the shadow of fame, and the fine line between talent and madness.
But really, the movie boils down to a fluffy soap opera set in the worlds of the auction house, the orchestra and the theater. If it had the feel of a fairy tale if it seemed removed from the here and now Avenue Montaigne might've stood a chance. But Thompson's staging is flat and uninspired: Most of the time, she's content to have two characters sitting at a café table talking, with the camera roving and circling pointlessly around them. The performers capable as many of them may be have been edited so that their best exchanges are cut short while their lamest, most dumbstruck facial expressions linger for about 10 seconds longer than they should.
Some bits shine through: the prima donna with the incessant Bee Gees ringtone on her cell, or the seen-it-all theater concierge (the inspired Dani) who lives in a funky room right behind the ticket booth. But everything wraps up way too neatly, and by the time Sydney Pollack shows up playing a famous American director prone to spouting off comments like "Fuck Sartre" the early fizz of the melodrama has turned flat and syrupy. What you're left with is a bunch of insufferable prigs who, for some never-specified reason, all resent the fact that they've never had to put in an honest day's work in their lives.
Opens Friday, April 13 at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].