The French, at least in the mainstream, love the fine things in life. Like last year's French stateside offering Apres Vous, Avenue Montaigne is, at its core, concerned with two things: people and high culture. Montaigne, directed by long-standing French director Daniele Thompson, is a finely crafted film that's both light and enjoyable. Characters weave in and out, sometimes connecting, sometimes staying aloof, but it's the art and Paris that provide the cohesive gel in this ensemble piece.
Avenue Montaigne is a slightly rambling character piece, revolving around a café at the heart of the artistic scene in Paris. The film begins with a waif-like heroine, all smiles and lightly jaded persona, played by Cecile de France. As a waitress in the hot-spot café, she meets and greets artistic luminaries, and in doing so breezily entangles herself with the other main characters of the movie. At one point she meets a pianist, played by Albert Dupontel, who is struggling with his identity as a world-renowned performer and instead wishes to discard his suit for a sweater and play pro-bono for those truly in need of his music. At another point she befriends a declining art collector and in the end falls in love with his son, aiding the frail father-son relationship between the two men. The third part of the artistic triumvirate is represented by a wildly popular soap star who is flittering towards a more artistically sound career. France's character observes, as does the viewer, this French high culture as an outsider. Director Thompson, in doing so, establishes this world as something of a fantastical realm full of dissatisfied characters who are at the outset ungrateful for what they have.
The acting is skillful and the directing is also well-done. The film meanders to its uplifting conclusion at a reasonable pace, though little is achieved. There are some fine moments when these characters of disparate lives arrive at the same spot (sometimes literarily) and commiserate together, offering universal advice that the viewer can take or leave at his or her leisure. And while the art, in its many forms, is lovingly presented in rich detail, there isn't much else to the film. Enjoyable as it may be, it skirts around the tenderest bits, opting for warm sentiment instead of hard looks.
It may be that mainstream French cinema has no wish to take a close look at the lives of the homeless, as France's character embodies, or the effects of aging upon a continually antiquated fashion of society. However, as 2005's thriller Cache proved, social topics can be mixed with a decidedly Parisian flavor and still remain sharp as a razor.
Avenue Montaigne isn't a poor movie because it isn't risky; it's a welcome romp as political heat builds in the realm of American cinema and documentaries the world over. It's lively in parts, sweet in others, but not daring in any sense of the word.
Avenue Montaigne provides intimate looks into very refined and cultured people. The film, which features a welcome performance by veteran American director Sydney Pollack, is chock full of views of Paris, mid-life doubts, and well-formed resolutions. While Avenue Montaigne isn't as forward thinking as some of its contemporaries, but it's still a welcome addition to the Parisian canon of films depicting the nostalgic sense of Paris; art as a catalyst towards budding love and long-needed reconciliation.