The title of Danièle Thompson's hugely charming Avenue Montaigne refers to a Parisian boulevard of dreams both broken and blossoming, where a dying old man (Claude Brasseur) auctions off his storied art collection; a world-class concert pianist (Albert Dupontel) yearns to flee from a schedule booked up six years in advance; a soap-opera actress (Valérie Lemercier) strives to be taken seriously by a visiting American director (Sydney Pollack); and a longtime theatrical concierge (Dani) waxes nostalgic on the eve of her retirement. Somehow or another, they all end up passing through the orbit of Jessica (Cécile de France), a wide-eyed young barmaid newly arrived from the provinces. It is a movie about lives in flux—a favorite subject for Thompson, whose previous films as director include the antic yuletide comedy La Bûche and the whirlwind airport romance Jet Lag, and whose work as a screenwriter includes such popular classics of the contemporary French cinema as Cousin, Cousine (for which she was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar) and Queen Margot. The daughter of actress Jacqeline Roman and legendary French actor/director Gerard Oury (The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob), she is no stranger to the art-world milieu in which her latest film is set, and has herself turned filmmaking into something of a family affair by collaborating with her actor son Christopher on several screenplays. Recently, Thompson spoke to me by phone from her Paris apartment on the eve of the César Awards (a.k.a. the French Academy Awards), where Avenue Montaigne was nominated in four categories, including Best Supporting Actress, which Lemercier would go on to win.
OC WEEKLY: What interested you to make a film set in this particular neighborhood of Paris?
DANIÈLE THOMPSON: One night I went to a concert in this beautiful concert hall, which I'd been to many times because it's like Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center. When you live in a big city, you go these places, but usually you're rushing and you don't really look at the place. That night, I started looking around. It is exactly like you see it in the film—the same geographical setup. There's this auction house, which is in the old cellar of the theater, and there's this little café opposite, which is the last of the little cafés in the area because, as in all big cities, slowly these chic neighborhoods are invaded by luxurious shops and a little café like that can't afford to pay the rent anymore. Then I noticed this musician—a flutist—who'd been dressed in his tails and bow tie a few minutes before, and suddenly he walked out in jeans and a helmet to go on a motorcycle. And I thought this was really interesting, because these people come and work in this area, but they have other lives, and they meet in that café, but they shouldn't, because usually in cafés you have only the same type of people. But in this particular one, you don't. It's the only place where if you wear a work uniform, for instance, you can go and have a glass of wine and mix with the actors and the musicians and the people who build the sets. So this is a very special place, and the next morning I called my son and I said that there could be a story about this place and these people.
On the surface, the film seems to be a glossy valentine to the Paris of people's dreams, and yet underneath, there's a strong current of melancholy, of people from all walks of life grappling with disappointments and unfulfilled desires.
One of the things we were very scared about when we were writing the film and then making the film is that we were going against so much that's being done in French cinema now. We weren't talking about war or unemployment or the riots. Definitely, this film was a way of talking about another aspect of people. This dissatisfaction that we all feel, being on the lookout for something better—it's even deeper in artists. They always want another recognition, another kind of public. If they play Mother Courage in some far-away theater, they want to be on television and be known by everyone. If that's already the case, then they want to star in an intellectual film. Singers want to act. Actors want to sing. It's also true that once you're successful at something, people don't let you do something else. You're locked into the thing you've done well, like in a prison.
Was that typecasting something you encountered yourself as you started to make the transition from screenwriting to directing?
What was more of a difficult move was having worked on all these great French comedies with my father. Having had that as an apprenticeship, when I was asked by Patrice Chereau to write Queen Margot, people would say to him, "You're working with Danièle Thompson? What a strange idea!" It was hard to go on to something more serious with one of the most "in" and intellectual French directors. It was brave of him to hire me, a little bit like Sydney Pollack's character in Avenue Montaigne, who is going to hire this TV actress to play Simone de Beauvoir.
How did you come to cast Dani, who will be familiar to some American moviegoers from her roles in Truffaut's Day for Night and Love on the Run, but who hasn't appeared in many films in the 25 years since.
She was really the only one I thought of. When I was just beginning to work on the script with Christopher, I met her at a dinner, and I hadn't seen her for a long time. I thought there was a story behind this face. And there is actually quite a heavy story, because she was a very young actress who played in a couple of Truffaut films and then had a difficult life. She had a very long period with drugs, and then about five or six years ago, she created a chain of rose stores, because she wasn't getting hired anymore. So she really had something very human—I thought that face had become older in a very interesting way. I shouldn't have done it, but I told her very early that I was thinking of her for a film I was writing, and as I'm a slow writer, she kept calling me every two or three months to ask if she was still in the movie, because very often you change your mind as the character changes in the process of writing. But I didn't change my mind and I'm very happy that we did this together.
Seeing as how you grew up in an artistic family, do you feel a particular kinship with any of the characters in the film? Is there a touch of autobiography at work here?
There are a lot of touches of autobiography. My mother played the same part in the same Feydeau play that Valérie Lemercier's character plays in the film. So, definitely I chose that play for this reason. My grandmother was very much an artists' groupie—she was a bit like Dani's character, who was not an artist herself but loved being around artists. My grandmother knew a lot of painters, so we've always been involved with art. There's a big melting pot of our family history in there, but it's not something I realized until afterward.
READ ELLA TAYLOR'S REVIEW OF AVENUE MONTAIGNE.
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