You can just imagine a pitch for Christophe Barratier’s Paris 36: “It’ll be like Moulin Rouge … but French!”
Paris 36 shares many similarities with Baz Luhrmann’s frenetic, Oscar-nominated musical. Both period pieces take place at Parisian music halls, where songs and dances begin on stage but soar away from real-world limitations. Both embrace the conventions of old-fashioned melodrama, using backstage romance to pit star-crossed lovers against black-hearted villains. Paris 36 even echoes Lurhmann’s hyperbolic style with an introductory New Year’s Eve sequence that crosscuts between burlesque musical numbers and soap operatic twists, culminating with a gunshot at midnight.
Barratier, director of the international hit The Chorus, oversells the nostalgia, whimsy and unabashed idealism of Paris 36, but brings such insistent energy to the production that you eventually succumb to the film’s swoony overtures. It helps that the film’s protagonist isn’t a typical, square-jawed hero but the middle-aged, physically unimpressive Pigoil (Gérard Jugnot), stage manager of the ill-fated music hall the Chansonia.
When cruel magnate Galapiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) shutters the Chansonia and Pigoil’s estranged wife takes custody of his beloved, accordion-playing son, Jojo (Maxence Perrin), the stage manager wallows in self-pity until he finds unlikely inspiration in the 1936 labor movement. Pigoil and his fellow unemployed artists lead a spontaneous “occupation” of the Chansonia and strike a deal with Galapiat to keep the theater running as long as their show can turn a profit.
Naturally, Paris 36 includes a love story between two beautiful ingénues, the impassioned labor organizer Milou (Clovis Cornillac) and the orphaned, overnight singing sensation Douce (Nora Arnezeder). Like a French Scarlett Johansson, Arnezeder proves a completely winsome heroine. (I swear she was flirting with me the entire movie.)
Meanwhile, the Chansonia’s new would-be star Jacky (Kad Merad), finds a more receptive audience for anti-Semitic fascist propaganda than for his terrible impressions. The plot’s black-and-white political dichotomy pits the solidarity of stalwart workers against sadistic capitalists, and never offers any knotty, cynical twists a la Urinetown. Nevertheless, Paris 36 feels like precisely the kind of film that suits the current economic slump, not unlike the Depression-era musical traditions it evokes. Paris 36 acknowledges harsh economic inequities, but offers enough cheerful escapism to put a song in your heart.