At the beginning of Paris 36, Pigoil (Gérard Jugnot), portly, rumpled, and despairing, shuffles into a police station. We learn why when a detective remarks that he “doesn’t look like a killer.” With that, Pigoil begins to explain: his story, he says, is inseparable from the story of the Chansonia, the shabby music hall at the center of a blue-collar neighborhood. On New Year’s Eve 1935, he faced a series of endings: a deadline to pay a debt to gangsters, the end of his marriage, and the suicide of Dorfeuil (Jean Lescot), the Chansonia’s owner. At that moment, Pigoil recalls, the Chansonia was shut down, putting him and his fellow employees out of work.
The Chansonia is at the center of all the stories of Paris 36, and there are a lot of them. Pigoil’s narration provides the frame.
Spurred on by the election of a Front Populaire government promising to be pro-worker, the neighborhood comes together to occupy (quite militantly) the Chansonia and restore it to its former glory. But it soon becomes apparent that each person has his own motives for participating in the resurrection, some less about the nostalgia represented by Chansonia and more about personal gain, some honest and some ill-gotten. Pigoil needs a paying job to regain custody of his son JoJo (Maxence Perrin), the mobster Galapiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) sees the theater as an opportunity to consolidate his power, and the self-proclaimed “red,” Milou (Clovis Cornillac), can’t resist the opportunity to head up a revolution.
Paris 36 is ultimately about men and power. The friendships among Pigoil, Milou, and aspiring imitator Jacky (Kad Merad) are at its center, but they are repeatedly at the mercy of the political climate, which has brought hope for workers’ empowerment, but also extremism and corruption. The cumulative effect is that the women, what few there are in Paris 36, are at the mercy of the men. They serve as objects of derision and desire, at turns punished and insulted, lusted after and claimed. Pigoil’s wife Viviane (ƒlisabeth Vitale) is plainly demonized for cheating on him and first abandoning, then taking JoJo. Even the beautiful young singer Douce (Nora Arnezeder), though she is the key to the Chansonia’s success, is not spared from narrative abuses.
If this sounds like bleak fare, it is. In fact, most of the movie’s themes are very dark, which should not be surprising given that it begins with that murder confession. Still, Paris 36 strives, with considerable success, to balance its darkness, not just with humor but also with visual flamboyance: colorful costumes and happily artificial sets. Its musical flair is reserved for its specific performance moments: JoJo playing his accordion on the street, exuberant group rehearsals, and, of course, shows at the Chansonia. During these performances, swirling camera action lightens the mood considerably, but such moments remain contained, never spilling over into the “real life” drama taking place off stage.
For all of the endings Pigoil describes, Paris 36 also offers new beginnings, from the Front Populaire in 1936 to the last scenes’ focus on yet another New Year’s Eve, 10 years later. In 1945, the prisons are releasing inmates early to make room for “collaborators,” a harbinger of an infinitely darker next era. Even as it looks back, Paris 36 is strangely modern in its more hopeful plot, the restoration of the Chansonia. Pigoil and his friends basically create their own opportunity, fashioning their own fresh start in response to a seeming conclusion. In this they seem topical, much like those audience members who might be dealing lost jobs and dreary futures, and their innovation and resilience are heartening.