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Fauteuils d’orchestre (Orchestra Seats)

July 31, 2007

Jessica (Cécile De France) is, and I’m sorry but there’s no other word for it, an ingenue, new to Paris, who becomes a waitress at a bar on the Avenue Montaigne. In the immediate area, three theatres have been booked for forthcoming events: celebrated pianist Jean-François Lefort (Albert Dupontel) to perform a Beethoven concert; soap-opera star Catherine Versen (Valérie Lemercier) to open a Feydeau farce; and financier Jacques Grumberg (Claude Brasseur) to auction off his and his dead wife’s renowned art collection.

All three have serious crises building. Lefort sees the success of his career drowning out his marriage. He no longer gets a buzz from the concert merry-go-round and wishes to do something with his talent that will connect him to the non-classical snobby crowd (there is a scene where he is playing ‘in the round’ to a group of patients in the chapel at the Société de Cancérologie that will have you blubbing like a baby). His wife, the almost unutterably gorgeous Valentine (Laura Morente), adores the lifestyle, and he adores her, but steadily they’re being pulled apart.

Versen, is the scene stealer, and it is in many ways Lemercier’s movie, for she is simply hilarious; a soap actress during the day and pratfalling comedienne by night, she is adored by the mob – who recognise her wherever she goes – but shunned by the top-end of her own profession. She spits their names out (“Huppert! Adjani!”) in despair, but longs to join their ranks. Her play is a success but she rues the fact that Feydeau has ‘no psychology’ or depth. When Sydney Pollack, playing – naturally – a renowned American director, walks into the Bar des Theatres she fawns all over him, telling him how much she loved Taxi Driver. “Yeah, Marty’s pretty good,” says Pollack. Her befuddled flounce out of the bar into the street is a hoot.

Grumberg is the art dealer and collector, selling his vast array of treasures because of their memories and associations. His son, appalled by the youth of the young girl his father has taken up with since being made a widow (not least because he himself dated the girl previously), tries to warn the old man off the little gold-digger, but gets nowhere. The man says that he and his wife “had a hard-on for life for 30 years” and he’s determined to carry on with it. His son hates and loves the collection of memories, and considers risking everything to try and secure one particular piece that means so much to him.

Into all of this, breezes Jessica. A more charming and sparkling turn I’ve not seen since Cruz’s Raimunda in Volver, but where Cruz was sassy and older and brought her experience to the fore, de France is gloriously innocent. She takes drinks and food to the three theatres, connecting the stories gently and mixing up the main characters’ emotions and motivations with such disingenuous good humour you cannot help but smile broadly when she’s on screen. As everyone begins to face up to their respective crossroads, Jessica just wants to find somewhere cheap to live in a very expensive world. It’s a simple life for her, and with a fresh-faced ‘the rest is just detail’ skip she manages to catalyse this tortured boho community into sorting themselves out.

Possibly ten or so minutes too long, this is nevertheless a great ensemble piece that satisfies and charms to the very end. Make sure you get a good seat.

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