"Paris 36," the second cinematic collaboration between actor Gerard Jugnot and writer/director Christophe Barratier ("Les Choristes"), is delightfully advertised as the story of three residents of the Faubourg- Pigoil (Gerard Jugnot), Milou (Clovis Cornillac) and Jacky (Kad Merad)- who are grieving the loss of their beloved Chansonia, a neighborhood music hall in Paris during the revolutionary 1930's that led to worker's rights in France and waves of extremism throughout the country.
Inspired by the activist spirit of Milou and the potential custody loss of his 10-year-old son, Jojo (Maxence Perrin), Pigoil leads the trio in a takeover of their beloved old theatre under the nose of its legal owner, Galapiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), and aided by an unexpectedly gifted young actress, Douce (Nora Arnezeder).
The problem is that the film's advertising simply isn't quite accurate.
There are moments in "Paris 36" that are beyond delightful...they are truly enchanting throwbacks to the French musicals of the 30's and 40's. These "moments" account for roughly 30 minutes of the film's 120 minute runtime.
Then, there's the remainder of the film.
The remainder of "Paris 36" focuses largely on the other Paris of the 1930's and 40's...the Paris with rising fascism, economic struggles, civil strife and overwhelming unemployment. Rather than provide any weighty insights into this part of Paris, "Paris 36" simply infuses it with a sort of glib humor that often misses the mark in the film's early scenes.
The other problem with the advertising is that it simplifies what actually drags out to be a 120-minute film. According to the advertising, "Paris 36" is about a trio who unite to give Chansonia the hit musical it never really had.
Ummm, no. Actually, this is not what it's about. It's baffling how this conclusion was reached other than if, perhaps, the studio execs were like one audience member in my screening and nodding off.
Perhaps they missed that "Paris 36" actually covers several musicals BEFORE it ever reaches the climactic "hit" musical?
When "Paris 36" focuses on the lives of the performers and the music, it's a complete and utter delight even if it is a rather schmaltzy love song to Paris. While "Paris 36" is far too often drawn in extremely broad strokes and, for a film that largely exists as a love song to France, it is remarkably odd that the film itself was largely filmed on a sound stage just outside Prague.
Despite the film's seemingly inappropriate advertising and occasional pacing issues, it is worth catching for the performances of Gerard Jugnot and Nora Arnezeder alone.
Jugnot, who was a masterful blend of compassion and discipline in "Les Choristes," gives similar qualities to his portrayal of Pigoil with less discipline and, dare I say it, occasional fits of reckless abandon.
Arnezeder captured the "Best Female Newcomer" in France's Lumiere Awards for her performance here and, indeed, if ever there were a breakthrough performance this would be it. The mesmerizingly beautiful Arnezeder steals every single one of her scenes with a vibrance and innocence and wonder seldom witnessed onscreen.
The rest of the supporting players all redeem themselves nicely, though Barratier over-exaggerates their character development in trying to capture the widely drawn humor of the French musicals of the 30's and 40's. While this occasionally resonates, more often than not it distracts. The exception would be Clovis Cornillac's marvelous turn as Milou, who undeniably experiences the widest emotional variance in his character and brings them all to life with energy and conviction.
While the production design of "Paris 36" is truly beautiful, it occasionally feels as if we've stumbled upon an exaggerated and sentimental streetcorner not too far removed from "It's a Wonderful Life." Tom Stern's cinematography serves up a similar sentimentality, but it would be hard to argue too vehemently with the awe-inspiring shots of even a movie set Paris with the Eiffel Tower as a backdrop.
Finally, Reinhardt Wagner's original score nicely evokes the film's neighborhood feeling despite occasionally dipping into a sort of vaudevillian sound that didn't always mesh with the film's goings on.
Flawed, yet entertaining and uplifting, "Paris 36" isn't quite up to the standard set by "Les Choristes," but as a tribute to one of the most romanticized places in the world and to a bygone era of live musical theatre, "Paris 36" is a simple, sweet and satisfying cinematic experience.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic