Ccile de France
Paris – city of rioting, mass strikes, ethnic divisions and social strife. No, wait – that’s the real Paris – whereas Danile Thompson’s Orchestra Seats (aka Fauteuils d’orchestre) is set instead in the ritzy Avenue Montaigne, a centre of affluence and elegance familiar from countless glossy postcards and romantic films – and this picture, with its cliched establishment shots of the Eiffel Tower and its focus on opulence, celebrity and glamour, is all about the Paris of dreams (and dreamy tourists).
Our guide through this world of wealth and art is Jessica (Ccile de France), who like her grandmother (the late Suzanne Flon, in her last on-screen rle) has come from rural Macon to the metropolis hoping at least to work in the luxury that she cannot afford to live in. She secures a post as waitress at the Bar des Thtres, which is, as its owner Marcel (Franois Rollin) puts it, ‘a microcosm’…although not so much of multicultural Paris in general, but rather of its celebrities and moneyed elites. It is a place where art dealers, five-star travellers, artists, and their well-to-do clientele all rub shoulders together – as well as the odd worker who serves them, like Jessica herself or soon-to-retire concierge Claudie (Dani).
If Jessica’s new job offers her (and us) the perfect ‘orchestra seat’ from which to observe her new milieu, neither too far away from nor too close to the dramas unfolding around her, other characters have less clear perspectives on themselves. Popular yet exasperated TV soapstar Catherine Versen (Valrie Lemercier) hopes that her part in a stage comedy opening on March 17 will attract the attention of a serious American film director (Sydney Pollack) who happens to be in town.
Jean-Franois Lefort (Albert Dupontel) is a celebrated but angst-ridden pianist who longs to escape the suffocating formality of the concert circuit, despite the ambitions of his wife Valentine (Laura Morante) – and after a Beethoven recital scheduled for March 17, he may never perform in public again.
Starting out, like Jessica, from humble origins, elderly Jacques Grumberg (Claude Brasseur) is now a wealthy and successful art collector, but thoughts of mortality have led him to cash in his life achievements at an art auction on March 17, and to take a much younger lover (Annelise Hesme, famous in this country for the Clio ads), without quite realising that she once had relations with his son, the historian Frdric (Christopher Thompson – who also co-wrote with his director/mother Danile).
And so these different stories – of frustrated talents and reinvented lives, of opening nights and final days – all intersect at the Bar des Thtres, and all converge on the evening of March 17, when Jessica, infecting everyone else she meets with her irrepressible joie de vivre, is destined to fulfil her own dreams too, as well as those of her beloved grandmother.
Orchestra Seats is a frothy confection that, much like its characters, often seems at odds with its own ambitions. The initial mix of drama and comedy woven into its multiple plotlines points to a taste for the bittersweet, not unlike the strange combination of croissant and balsamic vinegar favoured by Catherine – yet by the end the focus has drifted towards the cloyingly conciliatory, with everyone making their peace and getting more or less what they want. Accordingly the final scene shows two young lovers enjoying that most sugary of desserts, a peach melba; but unfortunately in cinema, unlike in life, so much sweetness tends to reduce rather than increase the overall weight, and many will find that the fairy-tale dnouement works to undermine any preceding seriousness. And although the different narratives touch on matters as substantial as jealousy, self-loathing and death, the lightness with which they do so recalls nothing less than the kind of soap-opera drama that Catherine is so eager to escape.
With its effervescent heroine working in an eatery that forms the crux of the community, Orchestra Seats is just like Amlie – only without that film’s magical realist whimsy, and set exclusively in an environment that is, despite the protagonist’s temporary homelessness, decidedly well-heeled. Yet while some viewers will have difficulty warming to characters who, for all their success and prosperity, are unable to be content or even to stop complaining, at least they are presented with subtlety and wit by the excellent cast. Lemercier in particular puts in a hilarious performance as the neurotic and rather gauche actress Catherine, while de France channels the spirit of Jean Seberg as the elfin Jessica, a million miles from her lead turn in the slasher Switchbalde Romance.
And of course, like a postcard, it all looks very pretty…