Paris 36 (the original French title is Faubourg 36) opens in a police station where a dumpy, balding, middle-aged schlump named Pigoil (Gérard Jugnot) is confessing to murder. He tells us the tale in flashback.
He works as stage manager in a theatre called the Chansonia, a music hall with acts similar to an American vaudeville house. On New Year’s Eve, 1936, his wife leaves him and the Chansonia goes into receivership as the owner blows his brains out. So he’s out of a job, and very soon his young accordion-playing son is removed from his custody and thrust out into the country somewhere with his mother and her new, stern husband.
Meanwhile, his angry ex-friend Milou (Clovis Cornillac) is a union organizer whose strikes get broken up by hired strongmen in a fascist organization called SOC. This guy is a surly, roughly pretty little Jewish/Communist bantam, possibly the offspring of Leonardo DiCaprio and Popeye.
So far it’s not sounding like the bright piece of escapism the packaging makes it out to be. But wait—it grows even glummer. The former workers at the theatre convince the new owner, who happens to be the broad grinning fatcat behind the fascist group, to let them lease the building. They put on miserable shows that drive customers away, but one star appears in their dismal little heaven: a waif named Douce (Nora Arnezeder), a svelte yet plucky little blonde charmer who knows how to sing.
She catches everyone’s eye, including said fatcat Galapiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) and handsome young Milou. You can guess which one she falls for and which one’s financial support she needs, and you know this ain’t gonna work.
Let’s stop there, because there’s much more to the story, none of it credible. Arnezeder and the songs, a pastiche of their era, are the best things in the Chansonia and in the movie, along with frankly wonderful photography and production design. The highlight is when we get one full-blown musical number about going to the beach, and this is presented in full homage to Busby Berkeley’s numbers in Hollywood films of the same period: the kind of elaborately edited music video, complete with an overhead shot that could never be presented on a stage. And it adds the sort of bright color that Berkeley wouldn’t get his mitts on before at least another decade.
Meanwhile, we keep going back to all these dreary characters and their far-fetched problems and resolutions. This film’s chief characteristic is the tension between a depressing, heavy-going, melodramatic story and a continual sense of fairy-tale lightness generated by the visual style. Mind you, this has nothing to do with any contrast between “reality” and fantasy, because nothing about the story is realistic, nor is it trying to be. The movie wants to be all fantasy, and the fact that so much of it feels like a downer is meant to be balanced by the flowering of the music-hall fantasy later in the tale. Instead, it goes down like a sunken soufflé sprinkled with a sticky glaze.
The unreal, sharp-yet-false look of the film, which makes it superficially similar to Amelie, seems always at odds with the misery of its inhabitants. What’s least convincing is the element that should be most intriguing: the socio-political background of Paris in 1936, when the Popular Front was elected to office under Prime Minister Leon Blum. This alliance of leftist groups was responsible for introducing important changes into the lives of French workers (the work week, vacation time) in its brief history. At the same time, Germany was mobilizing and domestic fascism was on the rise.
How does the movie handle all this background? Partly in the normal, cinematically glib way of headlines and radio broadcasts, and partly with a certain contrived dishonesty in the characters. I’ve already mentioned the film’s central meanie, the gangster/fascist who’s at the center of everyone’s problems. This is perfectly in keeping with the melodramatic tradition of certain leftist films of this era, of which the most famous examples are Jean Renoir’s La Vie est à nous and The Crime of Monsieur Lange.
Some might call those heavy-handed, but they have more conviction than you’ll find here, having been fueled by a sense of urgency without embalming everything in the aspic of cozy nostalgia. They were contemporary creations, not re-creations.
More significantly, notice how the film handles structures of power. Galapiat and his goons are hired by a local factory owner/landlord who really seems to be the money behind the neighborhood. This owner, however, always has reservations about Galapiat’s methods, and finally his loyalty to his neighborhood and his people is such that, after feeling really bad about everything, he agrees to most of his workers’ demands and even decides, after a mixed-up murder, to wash his hands of his distasteful associate.
We never see him at the SOC meetings, which are well attended by cartoon fogeys (who are these good Frenchmen supposed to be?), so we are ultimately reassured that the real French political and industrial powers don’t really have their hands dirty, at least not too much, and that they’re ultimately as loyal as the two-fisted commies and long-suffering dunderklumpen. So who’s to blame? Why, only the gross stereotyped baddies who, even so, can still claim the French vice of being fools for love. And it’s only a paper moon.
The making-of’s include an appropriate huzzah for 18-year-old ingénue Arnezeder, whom the camera loves. (And it’s a full half hour before she shows up in the movie—no wonder it seems to drag.) There’s a general interview with the actors, who also include veteran comedian Pierre Richard as the housebound old songwriter and Kad Merad as the dismal impressionist. Director Christophe Barratier and Arnezeder provide an English commentary track as another extra, and there’s a selection of deleted scenes. Several of these are extensions of musical numbers; one could wish they’d taken more time in the movie at the expense of the some of the drama.
The longest and most important of the making-of segments shows that the producers well understand the picture’s most cinematically remarkable feature: that elaborate design of the neighborhood, the theatre, and all the other beautiful buildings that have such trumpery going on in front of them.
The setting isn’t created digitally, or not much. It was built on a field outside Prague to realize the vision of designer Jean Rabasse, who worked on the Jeunet & Caro films Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, on Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, on the elaborate pastiche Vidocq (Dark Portals on US DVD), and on Vatel, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. I’m ready to call this notable artist the real auteur behind the film, because his design is its most necessary and defining element.
Participating in the design process, at least as an interested observer, was cinematographer Tom Stern, known for working with Clint Eastwood. The movie is lit with both density and clarity, and it’s full of remarkable Steadicam shots that dance through the sets as much or more than the actors.
When the bonus feature finally shows us the lovely neighborhood set being demolished after the shoot, it’s a more wistful moment than anything the film’s story achieves. These people and their problems never really existed, but this set did, and now it’s wiped away like the sand of a Buddhist mandala, leaving this problematic drama as the only evidence of its butterfly life.