Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Christophe Barratier
Stars: Gerard Jugnot, Clovis Cornillac, Kad Merad, Nora Arnezeder, Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Maxence Perrin.
Set in the Faubourg precinct of Paris in 1936 (hence the title) this charming, handsomely mounted but ultimately superficial film is a sort of homage to a bygone era of music hall entertainment and live cabaret theatre. It is also a film about the wonderful spirit of community and friendship in adversity. Paris 36 is the new film from writer/director Christophe Barratier, who gave us the charming The Chorus, about a music teacher who transformed the lives of a group of schoolboys. Here Barratier gives us a rich array of characters and a wealth of subplots that includes a romantic triangle, political tensions, and personal dramas. He obviously draws upon his own experiences of growing up in a theatrical family for its almost autobiographical and anecdotal nature. And therein lies much of its appeal, and at times it is reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge.
Located in a quaint inner suburb of Paris, The Chansonia music hall has been a local institution for several decades, but rising debts, falling audiences and the suicide of its bankrupt owner mean that it is forced to close. Crooked real estate developer Galapiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) plans to tear the building down and redevelop it. But with the election of a socialist government in 1936, an overwhelming spirit of socialism gripped France. Buoyed by a newfound spirit of rebellion and an upsurge in workers’ rights, a few dispossessed performers from the Chansonia reclaim it for themselves.
They are led by Pignoil (Gerard Jugnot), the veteran stage manager for whom the Chansonia was home for 35 years. He has recently been divorced by his wife, who has taken his accordion playing son Jojo (Maxence Perrin) away to live with her. He hopes that reopening the theatre and turning it into a success will enable him to regain custody of Jojo. Pignoil is supported in his ambitious endeavour by Milou (Clovis Cornillac), the womanising militant unionist, and Jacky Jacquet (Kad Merad), a tragic comic whose desperately unfunny impressions leave a lot to be desired. However their grandiose plans to revive the theatre are threatened by their very real lack of talent and money.
Their fortunes change though with the arrival of Douce (Nora Arnezeder), a beautiful singer who instantly proves to be a hit. She captures the attentions of both the mobster Galapiat and Milou, and is wooed by a renowned theatrical producer who is keen to take her away from this provincial, amateur theatre to the lights of the Parisian stage. The star struck Douce is the key to the Chansonia’s survival.
There are several musical numbers interspersed throughout the film, including the climactic Busby Berkeley-like over the top finale, which are staged with great energy. The ensemble cast deliver solid performances, with Jugnot (who was also in The Chorus) striking a wonderfully poignant note as Pignoil, and Arnezeder captivating as the budding starlet Douce.