12 March 2006 | Chris Knipp
This is very glossy mainstream French stuff; could do well with the older US art-house crowd
ORCHESTRA SEATS/FAUTEUILS D'ORCHESTRE:
Danièle Thompson's third directorial outing (preceded by La Bûche and Jet Lag/Décolage horaire) flows brilliantly on a grand scale doling out clichés and pungent acting in equal measure. It could do quite well with the older generation US art house audience and if the Film Society was looking for French films unlikely to be distributed here, this and the opener Palais Royal! were odd choices. Series viewers begin with a big dose of Valérie Lemercier, since she is prominent in both this and Palais Royal!
Three high-profile lives will meet deadlines on Paris' chic Avenue Montaigne on the 17th of the month in this story a famous pianist is going to perform Beethoven, a popular TV actress debuts in a Feydeau farce, and a millionaire is going to auction off the great collection of modern art he's spent a lifetime assembling.
All three are dissatisfied. TV star Catherine Versen (Valérie Lemercier) gets extravagant paychecks for playing a problem-solving mayor on a popular high toned soap and runs into passionate fans wherever she goes, but she'd really much rather be a serious actress and play, say, Simone de Beauvoir in the movie a famous American director, Brian Sobinski (Sydney Pollack) is in town to cast. Millionaire businessman Jacques Grunberg (Claude Brasseur) is still enjoying life, but he knows not much of it remains to him. He is ill, and his relations with his grumpy professor son Frédéric (Christopher Thomson, the director's son) are cold. His collection is no longer alive to him either. He makes up for it with a young trophy girlfriend. Pianist Jean-Francois Lefort (Albert Dupontel) is managed by his mournful but devoted wife Valentine (Laura Morante, the mother in Moretti's The Son's Room) and he's booked solid for the next six years, but the whole concert life feels as constrictive to him as the evening clothes he must wear for concerts (Dupontel looks like a hunkier version of the sad pianist played by Charles Aznavour in Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player). Jean-Francois wants to dump it all, but his wife, whom he loves, may bolt if he does.
Tying all these celebs together are a couple of charming observers, Jessica and Claudie. Claudie (Dani) is the theater concierge and she's about to retire. Claudie has lived her dream of meeting all the pop stars as well as classical performers of decades past. She had no talent, she announces, so she chose to be around talent, and she succeeded and feels her life was very worthwhile. The moments when we see her lip-sync old French pop songs whose singers she's known through her job are perhaps the film's happiest. As a kind of Ariel and mascot for the piece there is Jessica (Cécile de France), a naive cutie from the provinces with a pretty face and charming smile (the Belgian-born Cécile has been one of French film's most promising young female stars of recent years) who's just landed a wait job at the old-fashioned Café des Arts a place that serves every level of society that works in the quarter and who, wouldn't you know it, quickly meets Jacques, Jean-Francois, Catherine, and even Frérdéric, who's eventually smitten, and Jessica hears them all unload their problems.
Book-ending the piece is the relationship of Jessica and the grandma who raised her (Suzanne Flon), Madame Roux, whose life foreshadowed Jessica's: she "always loved luxury" but was poor so when she went to Paris she worked as a maid in the ladies room of the Ritz. Flon just died at 87 and the film is dedicated to her: one of those great French cinematic troupers, she was performing, delightfully, in films right up until the end -- eight films in the past five years.
There's climax, romance, and reconciliation in store at the end for the cast. This is very glossy mainstream French stuff, good writing by Christopher Thompson in collaboration with his mother Danièle, smooth directing, good work by the stellar cast. Lemercider isn't as buffoonish as she was in Palais Royal!one begins to see her appeal. The movie doesn't take itself too seriously even if the scenes between the pianist and his Italian wife are a bit intense, due to casting. The question is, what's this all about, and why must we concern ourselves with the "predicaments" of people who from the looks of it are so singularly fortunate in life?
(Shwon as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series at Lincoln Center, March 2006, Fauteuils d'orchestre opened in Paris February 15, 2006.)