A well-oiled script is nicely served by a multigenerational cast in “Orchestra Seats,” a bittersweet and consistently entertaining mainstream comedy that tackles the big themes of Life and Art with unpretentious brio. Gambit of three momentous events — a classical concert, the premiere of a Feydeau play and the auction of a great 20th century art collection — all taking place the same night works surprisingly well. Pic should perform nicely at home and stands a fair chance of success offshore.
In her best helming effort yet, Daniele Thompson (“La Buche,” “Jet Lag”) combines Parisian charm with knowing snippets of insider bite.
Jessica (Cecile De France), a fresh-faced young woman from the provinces, was orphaned at 4 and raised by her adoring grandmother (the late Suzanne Flon), whose self-professed taste for luxury led her to become ladies room attendant at the Ritz.
Jessica arrives in Paris and talks her way into a waitressing job at the only old-fashioned cafe on the otherwise hoity-toity Avenue Montaigne. Because a famous concert hall, a venerable theater and an auction house are concentrated there, the clientele is a mix of stagehands and world class entertainers, minimum wage workers and the exceedingly well heeled.
Jessica delivers food and drinks to the accomplished people rehearsing nearby. To the outside world, her clients’ lives are glamorous, enviable and perfect. But each famous individual is at a crossroads.
Thanks to his devoted wife (Laura Morante), classical pianist Jean-Francois Lefort (Albert Dupontel) is booked solid for the next six years. But the increasingly erratic musician feels so stifled that he may not make it through the next six minutes. He yearns to jettison the fusty formality of the concert circuit to bring music to the masses.
Self-made business mogul Jacques Grumberg (Claude Brasseur) is about to auction the art collection he’s spent a lifetime amassing. He’s having a fling with a much younger woman and is being treated for a serious ailment. Grumberg has a rocky rapport with his son Frederic (Christopher Thompson, who co-scripted with his mom), a professor and intellectual.
Beloved actress Catherine Versen (Valerie Lemercier), who plays a can-do mayor on a wildly popular TV series, elicits fawning compliments wherever she goes. She shoots the show by night, grabs a nap in her limo and rehearses all day for the farcical play in which she’s about to star.
But she really craves a shot at serious roles. She’d kill to work with the great American film director Brian Sobinski (astute pick Sydney Pollack), who’s in town casting a forthcoming film on Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. (One terrific sight gag shows five would-be Sartres waiting to audition, as distinctive as five Grouchos or Hitlers.)
Rounding out the principal cast is Claudie (Dani), the about-to-retire concierge at the theater. She has cheerfully spent her life rubbing elbows with over-achievers, overjoyed to bask in their reflected glory.
Pic’s action covers three days as each personal crisis comes to a head, culminating on the triple-pronged Big Night. Script is definitely contrived, but painlessly so, with meaty bits for all concerned.
Narrative shows that talent can be a curse as well as a blessing, positing that personal satisfaction can prove elusive whatever the arena of endeavor.
Ensemble cast shines throughout, with Jessica’s down-to-earth reactions to so much luxury and privilege our window on the pleasures and pitfalls of breathing rarefied air. Helmer’s approach to visual storytelling is much improved over previous efforts, and cumulative effect is both buoyant and satisfying.
Pic is dedicated to splendid vet Flon, who died last June at age 87 shortly after photography wrapped.