By Dan Persons
[Photo: “Avenue Montaigne,” ThinkFilm, 2007]
The street is real, a stretch in Paris lined with theaters, concert halls, auction houses, and anchored by a tiny café where artists, performers, businessmen and blue collar workers intermingle. Into this locale, director Danièle Thompson co-scripting with her son Christopher places a TV star (Valérie Lemercier), desperate to move beyond the role that made her a celebrity; a pianist (Christopher Thompson, again), oppressed by the demands of his fame; his father (Claude Brasseur), conflicted about the auction that will close a chapter of his life; an American director (Sydney Pollack), on the hunt for the perfect Simone de Beauvoir; and a young woman from the provinces (Cécile de France), who interacts with them all. I spoke with Thompson about and the comedy, drama, and humanity that courses down “Avenue Montaigne.”
There’s a generosity to this film even the gold-digging girlfriend isn’t judged too harshly. Were you in an especially good mood when you wrote this?
It’s a very interesting question. You think, “My God, where do I start? What thread do I pull first in this strange, abstract idea?” It actually came out of one evening when I went to see a beautiful concert at Avenue des Champs-Elysées [from which Avenue Montaigne extends]. It’s a place I know very well. It’s like Lincoln Center; you go all your life and you walk by and you go in, but [this evening] I suppose I was looking for an idea and I looked around as a cinematographer. I looked at this place, “This is very beautiful.”
Outside at 11:30, people are pouring out of the theater next door, people are going out of the downstairs auction room, there’s a restaurant with the doorman with his uniform. And then there’s this little café which a lot of the Parisians know, and which, as we say in the film, is the only place in the area where you can have a normal meal any hour of the day or night. We have millions of these cafés in France, but [usually] everybody in them is the same. Everybody works in the same area; if it’s a beautiful area, people are better dressed. If it’s a poor area, people also look the same. This place, they don’t you have very elegant people mixing with people who work.
So I walked out of the concert and everybody was rushing [into the café], thinking maybe they could grab a table, because those nights, it’s an assault on this place. And I felt there’s something about this place, which is very, very different from anywhere else in the world. Maybe we should talk about these people and how they meet, how they get together in this little café. It started like that.
The egalitarian nature of the café extends to the rest of the film, doesn’t it? I was thinking how film protagonists are often isolated to their own strata you don’t usually expect to see a character who’s a famous TV star hanging around the kitchen of a concierge.
But that’s close to real life, because you do end up there. The concierge’s [Claudie Dani] place is a sort of a refuge for these people. I guess, whoever you are and wherever you are and this is very much what the film is about you need to break up the doors of the prison somehow and try something else. The French title [for the film] is “Orchestra Seats,” which is very much a metaphor for the fact that wherever you sit, you always look: Would it be better on the side? Or somebody comes and sits in front of you and he’s a giant and prevents you from watching the show. There’s always that search: Am I in the best place I could be?
It’s not unusual for a parent to direct a child’s performance in a film. Mother/son writing teams are a little unusual, though. How did that dynamic work?
Well, we did it with my first film, “La Buche,” which was about seven years ago and the big test. Once we passed that step, it became work, which is what it is now. It’s very interesting, and I did it for a long time with my own father [Gérard Oury] we used to write my father’s films. Once you overcome this family problem, it’s very, very interesting to work with someone younger or older, for him with another point of view: a woman and a man, different sensitivities. It’s a good team, because there are things I say that he never would have thought about, and a lot of things he says I never would have thought about.
Did he essentially write his own role?
No, it’s all mixed.
Was there anything you brought to his role that he couldn’t have seen?
What’s interesting in the character is the fact that this young man never really understood the couple that the father and mother were, felt maybe a little forgotten by the parents, because of their passion for art and the fact that they’d built this collection and would rather go to some gallery opening than a PTA meeting. This is what we say in the film, but it goes much further than that. Some couples are parents more than couples, and some couples are couples more than parents, and this is the case for this young man. But I don’t think [Christopher] would have missed that, because we built these characters together.
You brought Sidney Pollack in to play a famous American director. Was there anything you had to change in your approach when you were directing him?
You have to forget that he’s a director. I had many directors in the film. Valérie Lemercier is a very good director; Albert Depontel is a director. The three of them had just finished films when they came to the set, and they were so relieved to just sit there. They loved it, so it made me feel very comfortable.
“Avenue Montaigne” opened in New York on February 16, with a national release to follow (official site).