French films that end up with general theatrical release in this country tend to exist as contented Oscar bait: beautifully shot, sentimental period pieces that are supposed to be uplifting and touching, but aren’t willing to take chances artistically to get there. What results are films that try to please everyone while failing to truly stimulate anyone.
Paris 36 is no exception in that regard. It tells an interesting story about an interesting time in history and does so in an interesting way, but it takes absolutely no chances. The film delves heavily into the push-pull interplay between Communism and Fascism and how the spirit of the times sucked even political atheists into the web in 1930s France, but the production comes off like an unseasoned steak: It’s good on its own, but a little salt and pepper would make all the difference.
The film follows roughly nine years in the life of a small Paris neighborhood, but concentrates mostly on one year, the titular 1936. It concerns the fates of the stagehands and performers of the Chansonia, a small vaudeville-style music hall that is struggling financially. When the owner falls behind on his payments to the local loan shark, he has to hand the hall over as forfeit; he ends up checking himself out of this life at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, while everyone else is downstairs celebrating.
The loan shark, Galapiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), a politically corrupt Fascist who runs a violent team of strikebreakers, promptly closes the music hall and puts everyone out of a job, including Milou (Clovis Cornillac), a brash young Red constantly at odds with Galapiat and his strikebreakers, and Pigoil (Gérard Jugnot), the head stagehand, who turns to the bottle while his son Jojo (Maxence Perrin), an accordion prodigy, busks around Paris for money.
Meanwhile, the stagehands – led by Jacky Jouquet (Kad Merad) – attempt to occupy and reopen the music hall. That’s when Douce (Nora Arnezeder), a beautiful, blossoming singer, walks into their lives and changes everything.
Director Christophe Barratier has not crafted a film for the ages here, but it’s a workable, fun piece about family and friendship, full of wonderful songs and musical numbers performed on the Chansonia stage. Because Barratier refuses to play with the politics he presents, however, Paris 36 is more a slice of life than an important film. The in medias res opening tells us the plot culminates with a murder; in an hourlong TV drama, that would work just fine, but here the disclosure sucks every ounce of tension from the preceding events we’re about to see. We wait in suspense for the big shoe to drop (a letdown, naturally), thus rendering the smaller moments practically invisible. And a film like Paris 36 is nothing without its small moments.