Dir. Christophe Barratier. 2008. Fr/Ger/Czech Republic. 120 min.
The proud sentimentality that made Christophe Barratier’s first film, Les Choristes, a runaway hit in France is back with a vengeance in Paris 36 (Fabourg 36) a retro musical with all the period trappings of 1936 France, from accordion music to the left-wing Popular Front alliance.
A beloved cast with the added pep of newcomer Nora Arnezeder as the talented ingenue whose arrival at a rundown music hall creates sparks should help the film to excellent local returns when it opens in France on September 24 (after its August 21 world premiere at the Montreal World Film Festival).
Chock full of engaging narrative developments, with splendid sets, an appealing original score and gung-ho performances, there’s still something perplexingly peculiar about the whole shiny package, a straight-faced throwback to the style and themes of the golden era of sound stage filmmaking.
But if one takes into account the international reach of La vie en rose and the local juggernaut of Welcome to the Sticks, it would seem that these days France fares best when unapologetically tapping into its roots.
Paris36 is as French as snails in garlic sauce, reviving the look and feel of studio-set pre-New Wave filmmaking for a plucky tale of goodhearted folk joining forces to put on a show - both literally and in the broader sense of soldiering on against adversity. There is humour here, but no postmodern irony.
The proceedings start when mild-mannered stage manager Pigoil (Jugnot) explains how he came to be under arrest at a police station. Most of the story told in flashback, starting with the performers and stagehands at the Chansonia music hall losing their jobs after fearsome thug Galapiat (Donnadieu) forecloses on New Year’s Eve as 1935 gives way to 1936.
Dependable Pigoil, with 35 years in the wings, learns that his beloved and vivacious wife, Viviane (Vitali) has shared her charms with his colleagues.
Four months later, Pigoil is hitting the bottle and only his valiant accordion-playing son Jojo (Perrin, from Les Choristes, son of veteran producer Jacques Perrin who is in turn Barratier’s uncle) keeps up appearances. Bereft when authorities place the boy with his now re-settled mother, Pigoil summons uncharacteristic courage to announce that he and techie-turned-union organiser Milou (Cornillac) and charismatic but mediocre impressionist Jacky (Merad) will occupy and rebuild the boarded up theatre. Collective elbow grease works wonders as determined volunteers pitch in.
Pigoil’s goal is to create steady enough work to win back his boy. But another character’s aim is to extort and exploit as many people as possible. Meanwhile, a stone’s throw from the theater, Monsieur TSF (‘Mr Wireless’) - a radiantly nimble Pierre Richard - hasn’t left his apartment for 20 years, claiming he’s content to listen to the radio. And tough guy Milou develops a crush when fresh-faced - and recently orphaned - warbler Douce (Arnezeder) arrives, eager to make her mark.
One character is compromised by an extreme right wing organisation and the tale requires nearly everybody to make tough choices.
As much as Moulin Rouge tried to modernise the period musical, Barratier is happy simply to revisit and temporarily resuscitate it. There are next to no dance numbers, but the camera is marvellously fluid and the score carpets the proceedings. With crane shots galore, widescreen photography by Clint Eastwood’s versatile DP Tom Stern beautifully captures Jean Rabasse’s endearing sets.
While saluting a storybook Gaul of hard work and rich camaraderie in the face of class inequities, the story pays tribute to the era that gave birth to the generous benefits French workers enjoy today.
France 2 Cinema
France 3 Cinema
Novo Arturo Films
Blue Screen Productions
+33 1 71 72 33 05
+44 207 462 4427