Famed French scriptwriter Daniele Thompson went behind the camera in her latest film, the comedy ‘Avenue Montaigne.’
By Scarlet Cheng, Special to The Times
Stepping out after a concert onto the Avenue Montaigne in Paris one evening, Danièle Thompson looked around at the swirl of humanity before her. “I thought, this is very beautiful,” the French director recalls. “People were pouring out of everywhere, the auction house downstairs, the theater next door.”
This spellbound moment became the seed for her third film, “Avenue Montaigne” (opening today). In an offhand, Altmanesque manner, the comedy follows the comings and goings of a dozen-plus characters over three days in and around the posh Paris neighborhood. This bubbly cocktail was one of the top hits at the French box office last year, garnering six César nominations and winning one acting award.
Thompson was born into the film business — her parents, Gérard Oury and Jacqueline Roman, were actors. Her father eventually moved into scriptwriting, then directing, and made very popular comedies (“The Adventures of Rabbi Jacob,” “Delusion of Grandeur”) that are considered classics of the genre. In her 20s, Thompson began writing scripts with him, getting her first credit in the 1966 movie “La Grande Vadrouille.”
She worked with her father for two decades but also worked for other directors and became known as one of the top screen scribes in France. Among her credits are the comedy “Cousin, Cousine” for writer-director Jean-Charles Tacchella and the historical epic “Queen Margot” for filmmaker and stage director Patrice Chéreau.
With such success, why switch to directing?
“First of all, I’m getting older,” says Thompson, 65, on a visit to Los Angeles this winter. The petite woman with a smoky voice wears the mantle of self-assurance shared by many cosmopolitan French women. “So I thought if I don’t do it now, I’m not going to do it. Also, I had some mixed experiences with directors. Sometimes I didn’t quite agree with what they were doing, and I felt a little frustrated.”
In 1999, she directed “Season’s Beatings” (or “La Bûche”), a story about three sisters facing the trauma of Christmas and romantic crises, noted by the New York Times for its “deft insight and complex, understated emotions.” The director had invited her son to work on the script with her (he also appears on screen) — “It’s very lonely when you’re by yourself,” she says — and they’ve been writing partners since.
Thompson approaches a script methodically. With her son, she schedules weekly meetings, first to brainstorm. “It’s a lot of talking and writing down ideas at the beginning,” says Christopher Thompson by telephone from Paris. Characters get established, and an outline gets written. “When the scenes become specific, she’ll go off on her own and write a lot of dialogue, and then we’ll edit together.”
There’s never a guarantee they’ll end up with an acting part for him, and his role of Frederick in “Avenue Montaigne” was created late in the process. “We were very far into the script, and I had read a book which describes people who short-circuit themselves,” he says. “That triggered the idea of Frederick — and the woman that he ‘shared’ with his father.” Frederick, a university professor, has chosen a career radically different from his businessman father, but he still lives in the old man’s shadow. Eventually, the co-writers agreed it would be a good role for him.
“Avenue Montaigne” takes place mainly in four venues found on the real Avenue Montaigne — a theater, a concert hall, an auction house and a cafe. Catherine, played by Valérie Lemercier, France’s reigning queen of comedy, is a popular television comedian who wants to be taken seriously, and yearns to be cast in an art film by a visiting American director (Sydney Pollack). Jean-François (Albert Dupontel) is an idolized classical pianist who wishes to give up the nonstop concert circuit and lead a simple life. Jacques (Claude Brasseur), a successful businessman and major art collector, is selling his collection to part with his past.
“You get what you want and then you don’t want it anymore,” Thompson observes. “You feel imprisoned by what you wanted. This is the case of many, many people in the film.”
As in just about all French comedies, marital infidelity is touched upon in “Avenue Montaigne,” although it’s not as pivotal a theme as in “Season’s Beatings.”
Thompson, who has lived in the United States, notes the difference between French and American attitudes. “People lie, people are unfaithful,” she says. “I saw ‘Little Children,’ which I like very much, but if it had been a French film, the guy would never have gotten on a skateboard at the end. He would just have arrived on time and taken her away.
“People do leave their wives and husbands, they do run away with their lovers, they do get married several times. The thing is, there’s no humor about it here. In France, we think, this is not right, but it’s funny.”
For her, the happiest discovery about directing was the delight of working with actors. “Sitting with the actors, rehearsing, talking about what I really wanted, the nuances, that was a thing I’d never done before. I loved that, because the actors, they’re so great, they listen so much, they’re so conscientious about getting the part right.”
Yes, directing takes enormous time and energy, but she’s eager to take on more such directing projects. “After a day’s work building a screenplay, I’m exhausted,” says Thompson. “Whereas when you direct a film, you’re like leading an army; it gives you enormous energy. I feel exhausted at the end of the day, but I don’t feel empty.” [source]