Halfway through this film our ingenuous protagonist tells a man she hopes to impress that there are two types of people: those who hear the phone ring and think "who the hell is that," and those who pick up and simply say "hey." Yet she is wrong, there is a third category: those who never approach the switch hook at all. That the man happens to be impressed with her has little to do, of course, with the correctness of this statement and more with the fact that he has already made up his mind about her. As it turns out in this tale, being incorrect about one's immediate surroundings and cohabitants will not be so much of an occasional mistake as a pathological disorder.
I did mention a protagonist, which I suppose is what we will have to dub the twentysomething tomboy Jessica (Cécile de France). Jessica embodies how we are supposed to enjoy being young and how we are supposed to treat the old, and we begin the film by hearing her grandmother prattle on about her fetish for luxury. Some reviewers have become vigorously opposed to other details from the film simply because they detect, behind the humoring of a nice elderly lady, an admiration for celebrity and wealth. Readers of these pages are, however, well aware of my antipathy to such nonsense, so perhaps it might be more analytically productive to digest Avenue Montaigne as both a homage to failure and a mockery of success. If our left-wing sensibilities are still offended we can take solace in the presence of a great artist. This is Jean-François Lefort (Albert Dupontel), who must certainly be the buffest concert pianist you will ever encounter. Lefort (literally, "the strong") possesses effusive talent and regales us with a variety of pieces that would make any connoisseur appreciate the plot that interferes with his listening pleasure. Lefort has a beautiful wife (the ageless Laura Morante) who is also his manager, ubiquitous fame, and enough compensation to fund his rigorous workout and dietary regimen – all of which means he will soon yearn anew for the humdrum errands of average life. His epiphany comes quickly and is captioned by yet another mistaken impression, said to Jessica in her newly appointed position as waitress at a celebrity bistro: "You are a waitress; you can quit at any time and people will understand. I can never quit because no one would understand." The facetiousness of this statement cannot be verified by detail from the film (his attitudes are apparently styled after this French pianist). After all, we don't know whether his wife first became his manager or his manager first became his wife. We also know that talent such as his normally emerges from unbridled ambition, even if only for personal satisfaction. Lefort may be miserable but he has himself to blame, although Jessica smartly does not for one moment hold that against him.
In fact, with the exception of one late and wholly justified outburst, Jessica doesn't hold much against anyone. She meets a widowed art collector, Jacques Grumberg (Claude Brasseur), still insecure about his blue-collar and perhaps his Jewish roots (a comment made in another context emphasizes this likelihood), his dishy girlfriend Valérie (Annelise Hesme), and his very intellectual son Frédéric (Christopher Thompson). Frédéric has a brooding, attractive air complete with permanently furrowed brow not unlike the demeanor of this Danish actor and, when not teaching at the Sorbonne, can offer his father more sarcasm than sympathy (it should be said that there is a plain back story to their relationship that is neither worth spoiling, nor particularly original). Three more figures waft in and out, adding more to our annoyance than anything else: the kitschy celebrity fan Claudie (Dani), the neurotic actress Catherine Versen (Valérie Lemercier, who inexplicably won a César for this role), and the American director Brian Sobinski (the late Sydney Pollack). No great loss would be endured if we never saw any one of these characters again. Claudie provides the provincial Jessica with a roof over her head and some comfort to both her and Catherine, but we greatly anticipate her retirement on March 17. That same night, as it were, three main events within a block of one another are taking place: Catherine is starring in a demimonde comedy that eerily reflects her own vapid, slutty struggles; Lefort is playing with the local philharmonic; and Jacques is "parting with his art" (yes, that last phrase is especially jarring). The auction will rake in millions, and since Jacques cannot be said to be in fantastic health it is assumed that Frédéric and his siblings will be the beneficiaries – if Valérie does not marry the blighter on his deathbed.
The countdown to the big night does not sway us, nor should it do so. There are few things more loathsome than an ensemble cast (I shudder at the ten separate portraits on some of the advertisement posters) and even fewer than a hyperlink film, yet Avenue Montaigne fits into neither pigeonhole. The characters meet in a very easy way since they all work right next to one another, invariably congregating in Jessica's celebrity bistro described as a "microcosm" that exploits the lack of supermarkets or drugstores in its vicinity. Soon we recognize our plot as mere observation of an assortment of unhappy people who alternatively exhibit sloth, selfish ambition, resentment, greed, anxiety, and frustration. All of these are normal human feelings experienced by all normal humans; the only question is in what proportion to the good things in life they occur. At the center of this tumult we find two souls: the young woman who is completely unattached and, in a harmless way, completely talentless, and the middle-aged man of genius shackled for all of eternity to the fruits of his prodigious abilities. Lefort plays for a hospital of sick and elderly people and finds greater exaltation than in any paid concert; when his wife says of Jacques that "he is not an artist, but an investor in art," Lefort cruelly subjects her to the same judgment. Only a true pococurante could not be moved by Lefort's skill, and only a lover of Paris will appreciate the landscape. And, as one character comments, "a man who is a pain to his mistress must be a pain to his wife." I suppose some people can afford never to return a phone call.