Fri, Jul 06, 2007 - Page 16 News List

Role players collide on the busy avenue of life

Though 'Fauteuils d'orchestre' is more of a bonbon than a bouillabaisse, the presence of desire leaves a bittersweet tang

By Manohla Dargis  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICES, NEW YORK

Fauteuils d'orchestre is a pleasure, of sorts.

PHOTO: COURTESY OF JOINT

A film about love and art, about passing time and time passing, Fauteuils d'orchestre is a humble pleasure. The modesty feels intentional and misleading: the story is a nominally light affair abuzz with minor incidents, comic faces, choreographed nonsense, melodramatic blips and swells. But there are serious complications too, including a handful of characters facing life-altering decisions. On the face of it the film recalls the light comedies of what the French call boulevard theater, which were meant to entertain well-heeled patrons but at times, as with Fauteuils d'orchestre, also offered more.

The film opens once upon a time with an old woman's trembling reminiscence wafting across sweeping images of Paris as touristic and familiar as they are blissful and true. "I always loved luxury," she tells her granddaughter, Jessica (Cecile de France), but the closest she ever came to it was working at the Ritz Hotel. Jessica eagerly follows her grandmother's lead: she goes to Paris, lands a waitressing job at an Avenue Montaigne cafe and promptly presses her nose against the glamorous, creative bustle around her. Like us, she is only a visitor to this exclusive realm filled with wondrous talent and expensive habits, a realm that - much like Paris itself - is alive with its own mythologies.

The director Daniele Thompson wrote the screenplay with her son, Christopher Thompson, who has a double role in the film as collaborator and actor. He plays the part of Ingratitude, also known as Frederic Grumberg, the dour, seemingly unloving son of a self-made man, Jacques (Claude Brasseur), who's about to divest an important art collection. With his gruff, gravelly voice, which sounds as if it emanated from deep inside his body, then rolled around inside gathering force, Jacques still sounds like the taxi driver he once was (a man of the streets, as it were) before good luck and fortune intervened. With his health problems, a beloved dead wife and a beautiful young mistress, he plays the part of Experience.

FAUTEUILS D’ORCHESTRE

Directed By: Daniele Thompson

Starring: Cecile De France (Jessica), Valerie Lemercier (Catherine Versen), Claude Brasseur (Jacques Grumberg), Albert Dupontel (Jean-Francois Lefort), Laura Morante (Valentine), Sydney Pollack

(Brian Sobinski)

Running Time: 100 Minutes

Taiwan Release: Today

Language: In French, With Chinese And English Subtitles


Everyone has a role to play in Fauteuils d'orchestre as well as his or her own stage. Jacques speaks most of his finest, most touching lines from inside an auction house that has been coyly arranged to look like his home, complete with matrimonial bed, side table, lamp and casually arranged masterpieces - a Brancusi here, a Braque there. Right next door to the gallery is a concert hall where a famous pianist, Jean-Francois (Albert Dupontel), is losing his faith - in his life, his marriage and maybe his art. He plays Doubt (and Tortured Artist), while his increasingly unhappy wife, Valentine (Laura Morante), who manages his professional obligations, struggles to hold on to her dual role as True Believer and Muse.

There are other actors, other roles, other stages, all of which eventually intersect, or at least brush up against one another, like passers-by on the avenue. Initially the most abrasive player is Catherine Versen (the wonderful Valerie Lemercier), a television star preparing for a role in a theater that sits cheek by jowl with the concert hall. With her galloping self-regard and goofily dramatic gestures, Catherine registers as the very incarnation of the actress as professional narcissist, despite the flakes of croissant tumbling down the front of her shirt. Even her ductile face, which scrunches and bunches with each word, eyeballs rolling like marbles, mouth twisting into tight bows, then expansively releasing, appears designed for maximum attention. She is the ridiculous woman, the frivolous actress, the Fool.

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