With her lithe frame and insouciantly boyish mop of blond hair, de France is a particularly French sort of film heroine: She looks like she just popped out of a New Wave movie from the 1960s, ready on a whim to sprint across a bridge in a New York Herald Tribune
T-shirt – or something equally charming. In writer/director Thompson’s new film, De France plays Jessica, a young woman who moves to Paris from the provinces with nothing but the knapsack on her back and the innocent gleam in her eye. Choosing to bypass all those unnecessary years spent paying dues in garrets, she heads straight to the city’s famous Avenue Montaigne in search of a life of wonder and luxury. Never mind that she can’t afford a meal, much less an apartment, in that tony district: This is Paris du cinema
, and as long as Jessica exudes joie de vivre, she’ll have the world on a string. Thompson’s Paris is a close cousin of Woody Allen’s Manhattan: a place of boundless wealth, safety, and romantic possibility, where genuine urban hardship is scarce but emotional discontent is everywhere. Thompson, though, knows that even the deepest onscreen Parisian dissatisfaction will sparkle in the city's glow. This is one of the wonders of Paris, I imagine, or at least of being rich in Paris: Even your misery plays like a fairy tale. In Avenue Montaigne
, miserable souls are as common as raindrops, and each one is a portrait of privileged existentialism. Catherine Versen (Lemercier) is a disenchanted actress who believes her talents are going to waste on the soap opera that made her rich and famous. Classical pianist Jean-François Lefort (Dupontel) gives recitals in packed concert halls but would rather strip off his tuxedo and play in forests and children’s hospitals. And aging art collector Jacques Grumberg (Brasseur) won’t allow cancer to stand in the way of his drinking wine and courting women half his age. Say what you will about the French; they know how to suffer. Bound together by Jessica’s contagious optimism, Verson, Lefort, and Grumberg trudge through their lives of quiet (but well-decorated) desperation, searching for an escape from the burden of their own successes, and like any French filmmaker worth her salt, Thompson (who wrote the film with her son, Christopher) is just cynical enough to see that shackles made of silk are shackles just the same. But she’s not fooling anyone with all those references to Simone de Beauvoir and chemotherapy: In her chest beats the confectionary heart of a true Old World romantic.