Danièle Thompson, writer, director, is on her way to becoming a dependable purveyor of the pièce bien faite, the well-made play in the lineage of Scribe and Sardou, or to adapt the term to her own medium, the well-made photoplay, solidly constructed, smoothly finished, superficially engaging. Her latest such effort, following on La Bûche and Jet Lag, and opening on Friday at Landmark's La Jolla Village, is Avenue Montaigne (in the original French, Fauteuils d'Orchestre, literally Orchestra Seats), a comedy of discontent, a comedy of attempted self-transformation, a light entertainment with darker undertones.
The way station for three principal intertwined plotlines, on the titular swanky boulevard in the 8th Arrondissement of Paris, is the Bar des Théâtres, a "microcosm" composed of the coming-and-going artists, musicians, and theater people, as well as the man on the street, and a place of employment for a waifish newcomer from the provinces (Cécile de France, full of goofy charm if a trifle too conscious of it), the first female employee in this bastion of Old World tradition. One of her customers, the center of one of the three plotlines, is a bipolar actress (Valérie Lemercier, a gifted comedienne but slightly deficient in glamour) who, despite her enormous popularity on a prime-time soap and her current involvement in a campy stage revival of Georges Feydeau, longs to do something more serious: "Any news from Alain Resnais?" Most pressingly, she longs to play Simone de Beauvoir in a film in preparation by a visiting American "indie" director (a bilingual Sydney Pollack), although, for all her desperate supplication, she can't keep to herself her own strong opinions on the writer's relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre. Another customer, at the center of another plotline, is an accomplished concert pianist (the soulful yet sinewy Albert Dupontel), in rehearsal for Beethoven's "Emperor" concerto, but in rebellion against the next six years of concert commitments, which is to say in rebellion against his manager-wife (the no less soulful but significantly softer Laura Morante). Another, at the center of the third, is a widowed art collector (the familiar face, since New Wave days, of Claude Brasseur) who plans to sell off his Braque, his Brancusi, his Modigliani, his Léger, his entire collection, in one fell swoop, and share the wealth with his gold-digging new mistress, the former lover, unbeknownst to him, of his own son (the filmmaker's own son, Christopher Thompson, and her collaborator on the script). Also at a crossroads is the linking character of the theater concierge (the single-named Dani) on the brink of retirement, a whisky-voiced old broad who, in a possible tribute to the aforementioned Alain Resnais, or at least to his multi-plotline lip-sync musical, Same Old Song, goes around mouthing the words of the male vocalists in her ever-present headset, chiefly Gilbert Bécaud, to humorously discordant effect.
All three of the plotlines, in a frankly corny contrivance, come to a head on the same evening: opening night of the Feydeau play, the night of the Beethoven concert, the night of the art auction. And because it's a comedy in the commonest sense, the discontent in each case works its way around to a positive change, a bit too neatly for the film's own good. If Thompson does not exactly lack the courage of her convictions, she certainly lacks the courage of Resnais's convictions, even in as light a frolic as his Same Old Song. Still, the level of culture in the film, the level of civilization, offers the American moviegoer a rare refuge and respite. Only the French (and maybe, sometimes, to some degree, Woody Allen) could be at such ease, in a completely commercial divertissement, with the specters of Beauvoir, Brancusi, Beethoven, Bécaud, Feydeau, Resnais, and the rest. Nowhere else could a sight gag set its sights so high: a tableau of our waifish waitress seated in a row alongside five auditioning actors done up in the guise of Jean-Paul Sartre.
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300, like Sin City, takes its material from a "graphic novel" by Frank Miller, and in turn it takes from the film treatment of that one -- or to be more precise, director Zack Snyder takes from director Robert Rodriguez -- the same, or similar, unnatural light, "virtual" backgrounds, coarse-grained surface, drained color, cadaverous complexions, etc. The same look applied to the same source will obviously not possess the same originality. Sin City, to make a fine distinction, was in black-and-white, sort of, almost, whereas 300 is almost, sort of, in color; but still. (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, without any inspiration from Frank Miller, was an even earlier trailblazer.) The material here is of course quite different, a comic-book retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae, 480 B.C., in which a modest company of Spartan warriors lowered the odds against "the most massive army ever assembled" by funnelling the Persian invaders into the narrow pass known as the Hot Gates. Western democracy, if you please, versus Middle East tyranny, as relevant to our own times as any Bushian gas about "evildoers" and "WMDs."
But there is actual, ancient history behind it, too, and accordingly some remedial teaching to be done. "Only the hard and the strong may call themselves Spartans," elucidates the knowing narrator, adding, for the benefit of note-takers or woolgatherers, "Only the hard. Only the strong." (Okay. Got it.) Spartan women, meanwhile, are as accommodating and accepting as the groupies in a heavy-metal rock video: "Come back with your shield," King Leonidas's wife urges him at his send-off, "or on it." Which would be a neat piece of rhetoric if the first half of the conjunction were something that someone might ever say. (Come back with my shield? And if I should lose it or break it, don't bother coming back at all?) The ensuing gory demonstration of Spartan hardness and strength usefully sums up a juvenile view of manliness -- a fantasia of battle scars and washboard stomachs and growling-tiger voices and monstrous adversaries and video-game combat with slow-motion highlights -- and the best to be said of it is that no one will mistake it for history; that the history, unlike the three hundred, will come through the ordeal without a scratch. Or to say the same thing another way, the artistic impact of it is altogether soft and weak. Altogether soft. Altogether weak.