'Avenue Montaigne'

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"You can be truthful," French filmmaker Danièle Thompson has said, "without being realistic." A philosophy that perfectly sums up her latest effort, "Avenue Montaigne."

Nominated for five Césars, the French version of the Oscars, three of them for its expert cast, "Avenue Montaigne" is one of those warm and charming farces set in the movie-magical city of Paris that the French have been making for what seems like forever.

But as directed and co-written by Thompson (with her actor son, Christopher Thompson), "Avenue Montaigne" sees no reason why it shouldn't also be as real as its material allows. The film's easy ability to create natural sweetness as well as bring emotional intimacy to this kind of story is always welcome.

Named, in the English subtitled version, after the posh street near the Champs-Élysées where its story unfolds, "Avenue Montaigne" was better served by its original French title. That would be "Fauteuils d'Orchestre" or "Orchestra Seats," a name that indicates the film is going to give you the best view in the house from which to observe several "inside the arts" dramas unfolding.

What "Avenue Montaigne" is extraordinarily well-served by is its star, the César nominated Cécile de France. With her short hair (think Jean Seberg in "Breathless") giving her a classic gamin look, De France as Jessica is the ingénue's ingénue, an actress whose irrepressible innocence is this film's most essential component.

Jessica is introduced somewhere in the hinterlands, looking in on the grandmother who raised her, a sprightly ancient who returns the favor by filling Jessica's head with stories of the glories of the City of Light. Soon enough nothing will do but that the young woman go to Paris herself.

Arriving with an easygoing attitude as well as the shortest skirts in town, Jessica proceeds to charm everyone in sight, starting with the patron of the Bar des Théâtres on the Avenue Montaigne, one of the city's cultural crossroads, who hires her as part of his wait staff, even though the establishment has never employed women before.

She's taken on in part because a trio of big events will soon be taking place simultaneously just a stone's throw from the bar: a theater opening, a classical piano concert and a major art auction. Naturally, with her good-humored ingenuousness, Jessica ends up having a variety of genial encounters with key personnel in all three venues. She doesn't exactly solve everyone's problems, but her combination of simplicity and esprit serves as a catalyst for solutions and change.

In the theatrical world, actress Catherine Versen (Valérie Lemercier, who won the supporting actress César), opening in a Feydeau farce, is bored with her TV soap opera stardom and is simply dying to play Simone de Beauvoir in a new biopic to be directed by a veteran American director, played by Sydney Pollack.

Equally high strung, virtuoso pianist Jean-François Lefort (Albert Dupontel) feels himself worn down by the grind of concert touring orchestrated by his more businesslike wife, Valentine (Italian actress Laura Morante).

The aging mogul who is selling his art collection at auction, gracefully played by Claude Brasseur, is the opposite of cranky, but he has a touchy son (played by co-writer Thompson) who has issues with the way his father is living his life.

Thompson's film cuts back and forth among all these stories; it's as much a love note to creative types and those who appreciate them (in an American remake they'd all be movie stars) as it is about the reasons we make the life choices we do. "Avenue Montaigne" may not be a centimeter deeper than it needs to be, but you also won't be feeling that your pocket was picked when it's over.

"Avenue Montaigne." MPAA rating: PG-13 for some strong language and brief sexuality. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes. Exclusively atLaemmle's Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 477-5581; Playhouse, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena (626) 844-6500; Town Center, 17200 Ventura Blvd.; Encino (818) 981-9811.

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