Under the Eiffel Tower

Avenue Montaigne unfolds and concludes under the sign of the Eiffel Tower. What more perfect visual metonym for Paris, an ideal blend of austere modernity and a certain baroque passion, of lacy tracery constructed out of tempered steel. Yet Daniéle Thompson’s film, which opens today, is about the difficulties of accommodating oneself to the ultimate urban reality, the relentless forward motion of time that drives modern cities.

The film itself has a certain clockwork inevitability, from its opening montage of the city moving from night to the workday but, to Thompson’s credit, that inevitability never becomes predictability and she never yields to the temptations of melodrama or – for the most part – broad farce. The latter is rather surprising, given the presence of Valerie Lemercier in one of the central roles, a TV soap star playing in a Feydeau farce while desperately trying to get cast in an American megaproduction on the lives of Sartre and de Beauvoir.

That is one of four major plotlines the film juggles with pleasing deftness. Claude Brasseur (still looking like a ladykiller 51 years after his film debut, albeit a bit more rumpled) is a self-made millionaire who is unloading a lifetime’s worth of great art while struggling with his estranged son (Christopher Thompson, who co-wrote the film with his mother Daniéle); Albert Dupontel is a famous concert pianist who has reached a crossroads in his career and his marriage. What ties the film together, gently, is the presence of a young waitress recently hired in the bar tabac that all the characters frequent. Cécile De France who plays Jessica, the young lady in question, at first struck me as a competitor with Audrey Tatou in the “horrifyingly perky” contest, but unlike the irksome Ms. Tatou, she has more than two expressions and actually brings a nice native, naïve intelligence to the character.

The result is a thoroughly pleasant blend of gentle comedy and gentle melodrama, a decidedly charming couple of hours in the theater. (The theaters in question in New York City are the Lincoln Plaza and the Angelika.)