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Avenue Montaigne: The cost of happiness 

French film wonders what it takes

Wealth is supposed to guarantee happiness. But you wouldn't know it from Avenue Montaigne, a film about all the headaches and angst that money can also bring.

In this meringue-light French ensemble piece directed by Daniéle Thompson (Jet Lag), Jean-François Lefort (Albert Dupontel) is a rich, successful concert pianist who debates giving it all up. Jacques Grumberg (Claude Brasseur) is a businessman with a remarkable modern-art collection comprised of work by Brancusi, Braque and Léger. He puts up the works for auction, perhaps fearing he may slip back into the poverty from which he came.

Catherine Versen (Valérie Lemercier), an incredibly successful television soap actress, wants nothing more than to leave her fame, fans and enormous salary behind for artistic respect by portraying Simone de Beauvoir on the screen.

In Avenue Montaigne, the unhappy rich and the apparently more content poor mingle at the concert halls, auction houses and cafes of this famously posh Parisian district. Money is both hard to get and hard to escape; it keeps people locked into a certain reality and it inhibits them from what they most want. There is poignancy in the way Jacques sells off his art collection, not simply because he prefers the cash, but because with his wife dead, it no longer has the significance it once did. It is ultimately such human connections – not mad cash – that, director Thompson argues, make our lives worthwhile. Thompson's simplistic argument about wealth and poverty doesn't exactly inspire strong emotions despite some well-crafted filmmaking and an urban prettiness reminiscent of Woody Allen's honey-dripping Manhattan locales.

Claudi (Dani) is one of Avenue Montaigne's examples of contented poverty. With her flaming-red hair and a pop-music obsession, Claudi is the caretaker of the high-art concert hall. She floats around the building's hallways singing joyously along to her iPod, able to vicariously celebrate her connection to the lowbrow art form within a temple to high-art musicianship. It is these people on the margins of great wealth who seem not to have lost touch with the true meaning of life, and who are able to relish the scent of roses where the occupants of posh hotels accustomed to the blossoms cannot.

Avenue Montaigne is all about perspective. Some may throw their hands up at the complaints of the privileged as they spit the silver spoon from their mouths. But the film is certainly more a work of light fantasy than reality, in which even the film's ostensible Cinderella, Jessica (Cécile de France), is a gorgeous, kindhearted waif who never makes economic suffering look less than sublime. Jessica is drawn to the Avenue Montaigne district by the oft-repeated mantra of her grandmother, who once worked there. "I've always adored luxury," her granny tells her, again and again, signaling some genetic predisposition to be near wealth. Jessica finds a job at an eccentric, posh cafe whose paternalistic head waiter cops a fierce pride in the wealth and diversity of his clientele.

Jessica, like most of the characters in Avenue Montaigne, is a schematic and symbolic character in an often overly didactic film. She represents a worldview of contentment with what you have rather than a struggle for something more. In the music-hall metaphor that defines the film, Jessica says her ambitions for happiness in life are simple: "a nice orchestra seat, not too close, not too far back."

More compelling is pianist Jean-François. Disgusted at how his art has become appropriated by a "chic, snooty world," experienced only in concert halls where people such as Jessica are reluctant to enter, he yearns for something more genuine. In one of the film's most affecting and, yes, emotionally manipulative scenes, Jean-François plays for a group of patients at a hospital cancer ward, surrounded by old men on gurneys and small children with shaved heads. Jean-François' desire to bring his music to a wider audience is a passionate and meaningful commentary on how beauty – in art, in music, in anything – often becomes the province of the most privileged class.

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